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Boxed Mac’N’Cheese Saves the Day!

Our family has been in sick mode this week, which translates into a lot of triage and late nights working, and not a lot of energy to put toward the evening meal. So I wasn’t at all surprised to find an essentially empty refrigerator at 5:00PM yesterday, as I began to contemplate what’s for dinner. What options did I have before me? Not many, it turned out. I decided to center a quick and healthy meal around an unlikely candidate: boxed macaroni and cheese.

No, it is not an ideal dietary staple.

No, it does not compare to any homemade version (unless you are Ava and dislike melty cheese).

Yes, it is made from organic ingredients.

Yes, we happen to have a secret love for this queen of processed foods.

My guilt was instantly assuaged by the suite of accompaniments I decided to pull together to round out the meal. There was zucchini-cilantro soup awaiting in the freezer (reminder: freeze everything you can for a rainy day!). A lonely but gorgeous head of purple cauliflower was roasted with garlic, olive oil, capers and secret ingredient anchovies. A “crisper bin special” green salad was quickly thrown together, saving one orphan kale leaf, half a carrot, a head of fennel and a little lettuce from their compost bin fate).

It all came together in about 40 minutes, and most importantly, allowed us to enjoy a family meal during a tough stretch.

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Summer Squash Linguine with Cheese

We returned from a wonderful vacation a few days ago, and I’m finding myself very happy to be home and cooking again! Not that we didn’t have an amazing time exploring the various treasures of British Columbia but after a long stretch of restaurant meals, I crave the simplicity of home-cooked food. This post was set up the week, assuming there would be time to finalize it and share while away but as with so many things, you live and learn. Everything about my daily life – even this blog – felt very distant as we explored gorgeous Salt Spring Island and dabbled in city travel with two little ones (the former is far easier).

And now, onto important matters, like: zucchini candy. Yes, zucchini candy. This phrase was coined by yours truly last summer after years of frustration trying to get the girls to willingly eat summer squash. After all, it is a quintessential summer vegetable.  It not just withstands, but thrives, in the harsh conditions of our little backyard plot. It is surprisingly versatile. And it happens to show up in droves in the CSA box, which means I am often on point to come up with creative strategies for preparing it.

Of course zucchini muffins go down easy, but not so the savory options. I tried the soup approach (which is incredibly delicious and simple – will post on this later). No love. I tried the simple saute with mushrooms. Lukewarm. Then, I hit the magic bullet: we grew our own. Suddenly, there was real pride involved in harvesting, which then leads to a greater willingness to eat the spoils. The outcome of  a quick saute on high heat with garlic and olive oil became “zucchini candy”. We struck gold. As long as it was served as a side dish, it disappeared alongside smiling faces.

So this summer’s test was to see whether I could incorporate it into a main course with any success. Since I’ve been personally obsessed with linguine for the past few weeks (on account of a transcendent version with anchovies and spicy peppers I had at Locanda recently), I decided to give a simple summer pasta dish a try. To my total surprise, they went for it hook, line and sinker. It seems as though a new quick, simple and delicious dinner (or lunch) is born!

Preparation

Total time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4-6 or more  (easily scaled to the number of people you are serving)

  1. Working with a ratio of about 1-1 1/2 pounds of summer squash per 4 servings, cut squash in half, then slice into thin half circles. Thinly slice 4-5 garlic cloves. Chop a few handfuls of fresh sage if you have on hand (or parsley, oregano, tarragon, whatever you favor).
  2. In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil for the linguine (or other pasta, per your preference) and cook according to package instructions or until al dente, remembering to generously salt the water before adding pasta. Be sure to reserve about a cup of cooked pasta water before draining the noodles.
  3. Warm a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan and saute the squash over high heat, stirring often so it doesn’t stick or burn, about 10 minutes. It should be caramelized (brown) and soft, a darker in color and sweet to taste when ready. When you think the squash is almost ready, add the garlic slices and cook for a minute or so, until fragrant but not brown.  This would be a great time to add a dash or two of chile flakes (adding them later, upon serving works too).
  4. If you are using fresh herbs – besides sage – add them to the squash-garlic mixture in the last 5 minutes of cooking. If you are using sage, fry them in warm olive oil in a separate small pan and reserve as a garnish. This is totally optional.
  5. If your pan is large enough to hold the zucchini mix and all of the pasta, add the drained pasta and a bit of the cooking water to the pan. Toss to distribute the vegetables throughout the pasta. If you – like me – don’t have room to mix everything in one pan, create a saucier vegetable mix by adding about 1/2 cup (or more if dry) pasta water to the squash mix and cooking for a minute or two, making sure to scrape the delicious caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan.
  6. Drizzle lemon juice, to taste, on the pasta and serve with grated Parmesan cheese  (Asiago, Gruyere or another hard cheese would work great too) and a salad on the side. Don’t forget to sprinkle the fried sage on top if you made some.

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Birthday Request: Spaghetti and Meatballs

It all seemed very reasonable. Spaghetti and meatballs for a Tuesday night birthday dinner.  One hour is all it takes to whip up the tastiest version of this dish and yet this hour was not to be had on May 31st when Talia turned 4. Facing a choice between a birthday meltdown over the cancellation of expected plans, or alternatively, serving dinner an hour late to a “hangry” preschooler, I opted for the latter. The risk was well worth it! Meatballs couldn’t be served fast enough. Spaghetti was slithering all over the table, the floor, the shirt, on its way to the mouth. But the entire affair was sufficiently celebratory despite the inauspicious start to the afternoon.

Preparation

Adapted from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook

Serves 6

Cooking time: 1 hour

(The sauce with cooked meatballs freezes nicely – double the recipe and have some on hand for a quick evening meal).

1. Take 1/4 cup of milk and add 1/4 cup of soft bread crumbs (I used half a slice of whole wheat bread and run it quickly through a small food processor) and mix gently. Soak until bread has softened, the drain through fine sieve, squeezing out most of the milk.

2. Sauteé 1 finely diced small yellow onion in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes, in large pan (which you will also use to cook meatballs). Season with a bit of salt and set aside to cool.

3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine: 1 pound of fresh ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, 3 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese,1 beaten egg, 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, 1 tsp finely chopped thyme, 1/8 tsp cayenne (the mild heat from the cayenne won’t be an issue for kids but adds great flavor), black pepper to taste, and 1 tsp salt (use a bit more if working with kosher salt).

4. Sauteé 1 thinly sliced red onion in large pan until soft, about 5 minutes.

5. Boil water for spaghetti. Don’t forget to add a generous helping of salt to water once it comes to a boil.

4. Mix ingredients gently but thoroughly until beef reaches an even consistency. Shape mixture into walnut sized balls with wet hands – this is a great kid task! If cooking meatballs immediately, add to pan with onions over medium heat. The uncooked meatballs can also be placed on a plate or baking sheet and refrigerated for a few hours before cooking.

5. Add spaghetti to boiling, salted water. It is should cook in 8-10 minutes, about the time it takes for the meatballs to finish cooking.

6. Cook meatballs with the red onion, over medium heat, shaking the pan to prevent sticking. Gently turn and toss the onions and meatballs so they brown slightly. Add 2-3 cloves chopped garlic and cook for a few seconds, making sure it doesn’t burn.

7. Add 2 cups simple tomato sauce (look for one in a glass jar with few ingredients – tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, basil perhaps), 1/2 tsp fresh (1 tsp dried) chopped oregano, 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley to sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

8. Simmer gently, uncovered, occasionally stirring the meatballs to coat them with sauce. Check for doneness in about 8-10 minutes.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and hot chili flakes if desired (and don’t forget the birthday cake!).


mushrooms

Another option: Mushroom Bolognese

I just spotted this Mushroom Bolognese recipe on Chowhound and was  inspired to share. I’m a huge mushroom lover, and though I haven’t tried making this yet, I can see how they can hold their own in terms of flavor and texture compared to the meaty traditional bolognese I posted earlier.

Give it a try  and let me know how it turns out. And I promise to do the same.

Bhavna and Patrick, this one’s for you!

Preparation

Courtesy of Chow.com and Yasmin Le Sauce

Total: 60 minutes

Active: 25 minutes

Makes: 6-8 servings

  • 1 medium white onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 tbs extra virgin olive oil, separated
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 lb crimini mushrooms, trimmed
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 dried red chili, crushed
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 c madeira wine
  • 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1L (about 4 c) tomato puree
  • Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. In a food processor, pulse the onion, carrot and celery together into small pieces.
  2. Add 2 tbs of oil to a large pot and heat over medium-high heat. Transfer onion, carrot and celery mixture to the pot. Add 1/4 tsp of salt, stir and sauté for about 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, add 1/3 of the mushrooms to the food processor and pulse coarsely. Add another 1/3 of the mushrooms to the chopped mushrooms and pulse again. Add the last 1/3 and pulse until roughly chopped. The first batch will be almost pureed and the last should be mostly large pieces.
  4. Transfer the mushrooms to the pot and add 1/2 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp of pepper. Stir and sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the liquid from the mushrooms evaporates.
  5. Add the remaining tbs of oil, the garlic, chili, marjoram and thyme, and stir. Cook for 3 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste and sugar, stir and cook for 2 more minutes.
  7. Add the madeira wine and red wine vinegar and stir. Cook for one minute to allow some of the alcohol in the wine to cook off.
  8. Add the pureed tomatoes and the remaining 1/2 tsp of salt, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes.
  9. To serve, ladle some sauce over cooked linguine or parpadelle and mix to coat the noodles well. Serve pasta onto individual plates and add a little sauce to the top of each. Drizzle with olive oil and/or shaved parmesan, if desired.