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Thursday, February 27, 2020

An epic fail and a standby

One of my neighbors recently lucked into several bunches of leeks and generously shared the wealth. Problem: I’ve never cooked with leeks—a funny admission from someone who likes to cook as much as I do. I dithered about what to fix—Prudence, the giver, was making a leek quiche, but quiche wouldn’t go over well here. I narrowed it down to leeks au gratin or potato/leek soup. Decided to serve it on Sunday night when we were having hash (the other part of today’s story), so I thought the soup would be too much potato.

I made the gratin the way I do for Brussel sprouts and artichokes, with a sauce of mayonnaise, aa bit of lemon, some sour cream and celery salt. What I didn’t take into account is that the artichokes and sprouts are pre-cooked, and the leeks needed to maybe be poached in broth or something. They were too crisp, their flavor too harsh—when I had assured my family they had a delicate flavor. I have fished out and enjoyed the artichoke hearts and am saving the sauce, but today may be the day to pitch the whole thing.

When I was feeding my kids, I always made hash out of leftover turkey, potatoes and gravy. So I don’t know why I’ve never thought of making hash any other time than post-holiday—or with any other meat. (With the exception of canned corn beef hash which I have been known to enjoy slathered with ketchup.)

Last week I presented Jordan with several recipes I thought might be good for Sunday supper, and she chose chicken hash. Like a newbie cook, I followed the recipe slavishly—until I realized I’ve been making hash for years and knew how to do it. Here’s what I did: 

Chicken hash

1 large baking potato

1 whole chicken breast (you could use breast of a rotisserie chicken)

2 Tbsp. butter, more if needed.

½ cup coarsely diced onion

1 small stalk celery, with leaves, sliced

1 large garlic clove, minced

Pinch of thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup chicken broth (I used the Better than Bouillon concentrate)

¼ c. heavy cream

            Boil the potato. Set aside to cool; peel and dice coarsely—pieces about ½ inch square

Poach the chicken with salt, pepper, a bay leaf, some celery leaves, whatever you have. Set aside to cool and then dice like the potato.

Sauté onion, garlic, celery until onion is soft and translucent. Add potato and sauté until browned and a bit crisp. Add the chicken. Stir in thyme, salt, and pepper and then broth and cream. Cook over medium heat until liquid is absorbed, giving it an occasional stir. If it gets too dry—mine did—add a bit more broth. The hash should take on a lovely golden-brown color.

Serves two generously, four with smaller helpings.

Who knew that old-fashioned hash could be so good? I didn’t even need ketchup.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

More on Sunday suppers

Smashed potatoes

   If you’ve followed my blogs at all, you know Sunday supper has been a big deal for me and my family for many years. It’s a time for the family to come together, share our week past and our hopes for the coming week. All over food, which I truly believe binds people together almost as much as prayer.

I’m also a fan of the almost daily email column from Sam Sifton, food editor at the New York Times. So I was delighted to find that Sifton has a new cookbook, out this week: See You on Sunday. Sifton believes, as I do, that people want a sense of belonging, and where better to find it than at the table. When people show up, he advises, feed them.

His book is a guide to preparing meals for a group larger than the average American family of four. (I used to feed about 15 on a Sunday night when my kids were in high school.) Pushing it on the TODAY show, Sifton fried chicken. The recipes seem chosen for the average cook, a refreshing change from a man whose recipes often call for dukkah, za’atar, harissa and houlamie. Certainly the table of contents is reassuringly familiar, with chapters on pasta and pizza, big meats, big pots, birds, and salads.

In the chapter on seafood, for instance, there are directions for roast fish, grilled fish, fish chowder, fish cakes, and so on. Your basics. A chapter on rice and beans offers discussions of white, brown, and wild rice, followed by a recipe for pilaf and then goes for the gold with paella. And red beans and rice, of course.

One of my weaknesses is that I copy or print recipes that sound wonderful but are so complicated that I know I’ll never fix them, cooking as I do on a hot plate and or in toaster oven. One such I recently found was for cabbage rolls stuffed not with beef and rice but with a chicken mixture and in a velvety cream sauce instead of the traditional red. I’m quite sure Sifton’s book doesn’t offer me those temptations.

But here’s what I did last Sunday night:

Salmon filet

1 lb. salmon

Olive oil

Minced parsley

Chopped garlic

Grated Parmesan

            Slather the filet with oil. Top with parsley, garlic, and cheese. Wrap in non-stick foil and bake at 400o for 15 minutes. My family thought it underdone, and we put it back for another five minutes, but I like my salmon closer to underdone than overdone. With this I served smashed potatoes. The fish was delicious and the potatoes good but not as crisp as I’d like.

Smashed potatoes

12 small potatoes (new red potatoes work but I used Yukon gold, about the size of a golf ball)

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper

3 Tbsp. butter, melted

I have seen far more complicated directions, with herbs and a complex sauce, but I went for simplicity and am glad I did. Boil potatoes until you can put a fork through them, but they are still firm, not mushy. Grease a glass baking dish with the olive oil. Put the potatoes in the dish and use a potato masher to smash each one individually. Paint the potatoes with olive oil, using a pastry brush. Salt and pepper to taste and pour butter over them. Bake 40 minutes at 350o.

I think too much butter prevented them from crisping up. My daughter put leftovers in a toaster oven, and they got crisp. You might try a higher temperature or a quick broil at the end of cooking time.

And here’s what I did with a tiny bit of leftover salmon: added one chopped green onion, about four slices cucumber, peeled and diced, juice of half a lemon, and enough mayonnaise to bind. Don’t make soup by adding too much mayo.

Happy Sunday dinner. Now I have to figure out what we’ll have this coming Sunday. Wish I already had Sifton’s book.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A recipe with a back story

One of my kids’ favorite dishes growing up was something I called green noodles. It’s quick and easy, vegetarian if that matters to you, and relatively inexpensive. It is not low-fat, at least not the way I do it. But there’s a story.

Way back when my brother was a bachelor Navy pilot in Corpus Christi, he courted a woman who had two children and little money. She used to tell that one night he was coming for supper and she had no money for groceries. So she cooked with what she had—spaghetti, pasta, and lemon. She made the simplest version ever of a lemon sauce—and he liked it. After they were married, I ate this dish many times at their table. (She is also the one who used to sauté sauerkraut in butter, slowly sprinkling it with sugar and turning, until it caramelizes—neither my brother nor I have ever mastered that since).

When I had children of my own, I gradually began to change the dish. The first big change was to use spinach fettucine in place of spaghetti. Then I thought chopped green onions might add a bit to it. Sliced mushrooms came next, and I loved the way they absorbed the lemon flavor. Quartered artichoke hearts came next, and like the mushrooms, absorbed the lemon flavor in a delicious way. Finally, I thought if you add Parmesan to traditional spaghetti sauce, maybe it would be good on green noodles. It was (though nowadays I prefer pecorino).

For many years that was how I served green noodles. But in recent years, I’ve had bumper crops of basil, more than I could use in daily cooking. So I made pesto and froze it in old-fashioned plastic ice cube trays so that I could pop one out whenever I needed it. A cube of pesto added the finishing touch to green noodles.


            Pine nuts are traditional in pesto, but being a good Texan, I prefer pecans.

Combine in food processor:

3 c. packed fresh basil leaves

4 cloves garlic, peeled

¾ c. grated Parmesan

½ c. olive oil

¼ c. chopped pecans

½ c. chopped parsley

Process until smooth. Will only keep in the refrigerator three or four day but freezes well.

Green Noodles

1 16-0z. pkg. spinach egg noodles

1 stick butter (you may want to use less, but I like plenty of sauce)

8 oz. mushrooms, sliced (I always buy whole and slice them myself)

4 scallions, chopped

1 can quartered artichoke hearts, drained

1 ice-cube size piece of pesto, thawed, or about 1 Tbsp.

Juice of one lemon

Cook and drain noodles. Melt butter in the skillet. Sauté the mushrooms and scallions in the butter. Add lemon juice to taste—I like lots. Toss in the pesto and stir to blend. Add noodles and toss to coat. Top with grated cheese.

My daughter-in-law Melanie used to do a slightly different version for her daughters when they were young. At a young age, both girls seemed to prefer savory to sweet, so Melanie cooked angel hair pasta and buttered it liberally; then she added lemon juice and capers. I watched in amazement one day as she dumped capers in out of the jar, not bothering to drain them (as I always do, with some difficulty). “Oh, yeah,” she said, “the juice adds a really good taste.” I tried it, and she was right.

Buon appetito!
I can't resist adding a funny thing with an Italian twist that I saw on Facebook. Police raided the home of an Italian family, looking for marijuana I suppose, and came up with 50 lbs. of dried basil. Gosh, I hope they don't come search my freezer!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The easiest pasta—or is it?

One of the earliest versions of mac and cheese was a thirteenth-century dish known as “de lasanis”—pasta with cheese. Today, Italians call it cacio e pepe—literally cheese and pepper. It has four ingredients—cheese, butter, pepper and pasta. Not even any garlic. You make it in your skillet, so it’s a quick preparation that doesn’t leave you with the kitchen full of dirty dishes some pasta dishes require. Anthony Bourdain once said cacio e pepe “could be the greatest thing in the history of the world.”

So what’s difficult about this? Getting that sauce right so that it’s velvety and smooth and coats every strand of pasta. Get it wrong, and you have pasta floating in cheese clumps in a thin and greasy sauce. It’s happened to me more times than I care to count. It’s a question of getting the pasta water and butter to blend together smoothly.

I’ve read that some chefs say the trick is in the flick of the wrist, learning to toss the pasta in the skillet at just the right angle. Others claim it’s the ingredients—you must use fresh cracked pepper. It’s not just a flavor accent in this dish. It is the flavor. And not any cheese will do—fresh, finely ground pecorino (a sharper Italian cheese than Parmesan). Grated cheese won’t work as well, because the pieces won’t melt and adhere to the pasta as well. Use your microoplane to achieve a texture on the cheese that will blend well.

Every chef makes cacio e pepe differently, and there are plenty of directions on the internet. But here’s a version I’ve had some luck with.


1 lb. fresh linguine or spaghetti

½ c. butter

1 oz. finely ground Pecorino cheese

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Notes on the ingredients: use a European-style butter. It has been churned longer, sometimes allowed to ferment just a bit, and—this is important—has a higher fat content. I prefer Kerry Gold.

As for linguine, unless  you have the seasoned palate of a trained chef, dried will probably be just fine. If you make your own pasta, more power to you—the dish will be better. But in spite of experiments with one of my sons, I have never mastered making fresh pasta. It’s a lot of work.

I sometimes use spinach linguine for a nice variation in flavor, but I’m sure Italian chefs would recoil in horror.


Cook pasta. Some chefs says to cook no more than two servings at a time, so the pasta and sauce have enough space to blend in the skillet. If you follow this, cut this recipe in half.

Melt half the butter in a large, heavy skillet. Use tongs to transfer the pasta to the skillet. Stir to coat.

Add 1 cup pasta water. Add remaining butter. Shake and stir until water reduces and forms a creamy sauce. Remove from heat.

Stir in cheese and pepper.

An added flourish if you’re feeling rich: top it with 2 oz. sliced truffles.

The nice thing about this is that, except for the truffles, you probably have everything on hand. And it sure beats elbow macaroni with powdered or processed cheese for the sauce.

Next week: Green noodles. Somewhat like cacio e pepe but with more ingredients. The vegetarian dish  has a history in my family and has long been a favorite.