Monday, February 18, 2008

Tonight's Dinner: Pasta Primavera

Vegetarianism has descended on my kitchen again because I am too lazy to cook/buy meat and eager to use all the vegetables I have in my fridge. Tonight's dinner is pasta primavera, which can be made in about half an hour if you have some vegetables handy!

Pasta Primavera
12 oz linguini or any kind of pasta you want to use

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1 orange or yellow bell pepper, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 head broccoli, cleaned and cut into bite size florets
1 cup baby tomatoes, halved
2 cups baby spinach, washed

1/3 cup heavy cream (or 1/2 cup half and half. I happened to have left over heavy cream)
1 cup chicken broth (or water or white wine. I only had water today but it was fine.)
1/3 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 - 3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs (or seasoned Italian bread crumbs)
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (or use dried. I happened to have fresh)

Boil a large pot of water and cook pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta (do not rinse).

In a large sautee pan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add onions, sprinkle with some salt, and cook until translucent and slightly brown.

Add sliced bell peppers and sautee until peppers are nearly done.

Add broccoli florets, stir to cook for about 3 minutes or until almost cooked.

Add the cream, chicken stock, and thyme to the pan with the vegetables and bring mixture to boil. Add baby tomatoes and spinach, stir to combine until spinach is wilted. Add the parmesan cheese and stir until incorporated. The sauce will be thin. Add bread crumbs to thicken the sauce to your liking. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add the pasta into the sautee pan and cook it with the sauce over low heat for one to two minutes until sauce and pasta is well combined.

Serves 4.

p.s. You might want to add more cheese or bread crumbs depending on your liking. The types of vegetables are flexible. These are just what I happened to have. I think the onion and bell peppers are pretty essential to the flavor.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Vegetarian Polenta Entrees

Having made a huge pot of beef stew, I thought it was time for some vegetarian goodies! I made two vegetarian polenta dishes (on two separate dinners) for Anna and Cathleen, my vegetarian friends, and both came out pretty good :)

The first was a polenta casserole based on Marcela Hazan's polenta bake. Instead of sausage I sauteed some diced eggplant (peeled) in olive oil and added it on top of the tomato sauce.

The second dish I just made up today, loosely based on Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook.

Creamy Herbed Polenta with Vegetables
Serves four

1 cup polenta meal
4 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup prepared tomatoe sauce (I use Romano's Marinara)

Vegetables: Use whatever you have on hand. Today I had the following:
1 1/2 cup organic baby carrots
1 large yellow bell pepper, sliced
1 large orange bell pepper
1 lb baby spinach

Bring 4 1/2 cups of water in a 4-6 quart heavy saucepan to boil. When it comes to a boil, turn down the heat to medium low. Sprinkle in the polenta little by little -- 1 tablespoon at a time -- and continue to whisk until all the polenta has been added. Continue whisking/stirring and cooking the polenta mixture over low heat for 20 more minutes until the polenta is fully cooked and pulls away from the side of the pan.

While the polenta is cooking (don't forget to stir it), heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a sautee pan over medium heat. Cook the baby carrots and yellow bell peppers over medium heat until slightly brown, cooked through, and slightly caramelized, about 15 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the baby carrots and yellow bell peppers from the pan. Add two more tablespoons oil. Add baby spinach to the pan until wilted. Season with garlic salt or just salt and pepper.

Warm the cream in the microwave and slowly whisk it into the polenta mixture. Add the mixed herbs and cheese, salt and pepper to taste.

To serve:

Spoon the soft polenta into a shallow bowl. Spoon some marinara sauce in the middle of it. Arrange the sautee vegetables on top of the polenta.

Serve immediately.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Happy Anti-Valentine's

In protest of Valentine's day, I invited a group of friends of various angst level to my house for dinner last night. I did most of the cooking the night before so on the day of the dinner party it wasn't too much work, and everyone raved about the food!

For appetizer, we had shrimp cocktail in individual shot glasses:

I cheated on the cocktail sauce but it was pretty popular with the guests!

Wasabi Shrimp Cocktail

1 lb large shrimp (size: 20 - 25 count per pound), cleaned and shelled
1/3 teaspoons whole black peppercorn
1 bay leaf
1 small lemon, halved (or half of a large lemon)

1 bottle of Whole Foods 365 organic seafood cocktail sauce (found in the ketchup isle. I believe it is about 10 oz)
1 shot of good vodka
1 teaspoon prepared wasabi paste

celery sticks, cut to fit your shot glass

10 shot glasses

Bring a large pot of water to boil, add the black peppercorn, bay leaf, and lemon about half way through. Put the shrimp in the pot, turn off heat, cover tightly and let poach for about 6-8 minutes. I poached mine for about 8 minutes. Drain and put the shrimp in ice water immediately to stop cooking.

Combine cocktail sauce, vodka, and wasabi paste. Whisk to completely combine (make sure the wasabi paste is completely dissolved. You might want to dissolve it in a little cocktail sauce before you add it in the whole thing).

Pour cocktail sauce in shot glasses, hang two shrimp on the glass and put a celery stick in there. Repeat until you run out of shot glasses! Alternatively you can always serve family style on a plate with the sauce on the side.

For dinner I made pot roast the night before -- in the Le Crueset pot that Lilah had kindly lent me (we missed you!). The recipe is easy but its success totally depends on the cut of meat you get. I got chuck roast this time and was not totally satisfied. Some pieces were a little dry but it could be my fault for trimming away too much of the fat. Also, it is important to make this with fresh herbs and preferably the night before.

Basic Pot Roast

1/4 cup flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
5 pound rump of beef (must have nicely marbled fat)
2 or 3 tablespoons fat or oil
2 onions, sliced
2 carrots, scraped and cubed
Herbs: one to two sprigs fresh rosemary, small bundle of fresh thyme (a little less than the rosemary), two bay leaves
4 to 6 cups of beef stock (I used Pacific brand beef stock)

Cut the beef into large pieces (this is where I deviate from traditional pot roast, which is served as a large piece but since I had so many people, it was easier to cut them into more manageable pieces).

Generously season the beef with salt and pepper.

Combine the flour and paprika. You can add a pinch of ground clove in here if you have it.

Dredge the beef pieces in flour -- a very very light coat.

Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in your casserole pot over medium-high heat. Brown beef on all sides and remove to a plate. (don't add too many pieces of beef at once -- otherwise the beef won't brown. I do the browning part in a couple of batches.)

Drain the fat in the pot except for two tablespoons of it. Add onions and carrots stir until translucent, scraping any brown bits left from the beef. Put the beef back in the pot and cover with beef stock. Add the herb sprigs and bring to boil. Simmer for about 3.5 hours until meat is tender. Check in the middle of the simmering to see if it needs more salt. Don't add too much at once as the simmering concentrates flavor.

If you are serving this the next day, here is what I usually do:

When the pot roast is done, I remove the meat with a slotted spoon into a big bowl and remove bay leafs, the herb sprigs (they will be soft and pretty ugly!), and any unsightly bits of overcooked carrots that I don't like). Return meat to the pot and chill overnight. When you serve it the next day, spoon away the fat that has come to the surface (this will be easy to do when you have chilled the pot roast). Bring the pot roast over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Add sliced carrots, potatoes, or mushrooms (depending on your preference) in the last 25 minutes of cooking. Thicken the broth with a slurry made from water and cornstarch.


For sides I served the squash gratin that we made last year at Lilah's house with Anna, Amy's mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach, and steamed baby green beans. The spinach was super easy but received the most raves! Here is the recipe:

Sauteed spinach with shallots

large bag of washed baby spinach (I think it's really important to use baby spinach. Otherwise the dish always tastes bitter to me).
3 to 4 large cloves of shallots
1 -3 tablespoons good olive oil

salt and fresh ground pepper

Peel and slice shallots into 1/4 inch rings.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a sautee pan over medium heat. Add the shallots, stir to combine. Sprinkle shallots with a little sea salt. Let the shallots cook until transparent. Take care not to let the shallots burn or brown too quickly. Add one more tablespoons of oil and add the washed spinach. Stir and cook until the spinach is just cooked -- about five minutes or less. Add salt and pepper to taste. Viola!