homecoming

sometimes when i sit down to write in this space, i wonder forward about whether and how my words will crystallize this particular time in my life. when i read them back to myself at some indistinct point in the future, what will they help me remember?

old passages i’ve written conjure up memories of a particular summer sweetness, or a dull and heavy dread, an uncertain waiting, a sharp vibrancy. and i am grateful for that. this course i’m traveling has felt long and varied, deep and complex, and i am glad to have records of it here.

i think of this now, because i have more to write. i have closed a stressful, demanding, exhilarating year as a teacher and grad school student. i have returned from two weeks walking so many unnamed roads and riding so many crowded buses and trains through europe. and i have come home to a house that is losing its sense of comfort and warmth.

during my travels, i came across this quote by maya angelou: “i long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever i find myself.” i love it. but i also wish, sometimes, that it wasn’t true. sometimes i want home to really be somewhere—or someone—outside of myself. for the homecoming to be a clicking into place, a slipping on of something soft, a true return. for now it’s just me; i am the keeper of my history, my comforts, my sense of place.

but i do my best. when i came back from my trip, i made sure to cook again. often, the kitchen—my kitchen—is where i feel most like myself. frantic trains of thought dissolve, self-doubt is replaced with self-assuredness, and i let myself be fully absorbed in what happens before me. the easy slice of the knife through juicy, meaty, ripe tomatoes; the sizzle and crisp of fat cheese slices on a hot pan; the smell of bread toasting behind me; the dry shake of garlic salt and fresh pepper sprinkled over it all. i ate this lazy summer meal every day my first week back, trying to regain my sense of land and ground. i hope embedded in this stack of ingredients—and this string of words—i’ll remember this odd, open-handed, wandering time of mine.

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Fried Provolone and Tomato Sandwich
Adapted from Food52
Makes 2 open-faced sandwiches 

Two 
¼-inch slices provolone cheese
1 
Tablespoon mayonnaise, plus more as needed
Two ½-inch thick slices sturdy, country-style bread
1
 medium-sized ripe tomato, preferably heirloom
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

  1. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully add the slices of provolone and let them fry until crusty and golden on the outside but still gooey in the center, about 2 to 3 minutes total, carefully flipping them halfway through with a pair of tongs. Once they’re done, carefully remove cheese slices from the pan, allowing any excess oil to drip back into the pan, and blot gently on a paper towel.
  2. Spread the mayonnaise evenly across the slices of bread, adding more as desired. Core the tomato and cut it into 4 slices. Place the fried cheese on the bread, layer 2 tomato slices on each piece of bread, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

roasted bacon & butternut squash pizza

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i have a growing list of reliable dinner recipes that are easy-fast-good, and these days i am feeling so very proud of it. it’s a collection that’s unique to me, full of ingredients and flavors i love, and that involve prep steps that i find therapeutic – or at the very least fuss-free enough to do on a weeknight. 

lately, that little file folder on my desktop has done wonders for my self-esteem. no matter what terrifying, confusing things i may face in the life outside of my kitchen, i at least know i can pull together some ingredients and make a great meal for myself. it’s one sure way i have of taking care of this fragile heart (and rumbly tummy) of mine.

this pizza recipe became a fast favorite, and an almost immediate addition to that treasured collection. i tend to have mediocre results when i try to make pizza at home. i used to get these limp, overly doughy, salty conglomerations of ingredients, and then i’d feel sad. and then order domino’s. this recipe changed the game for me. the trick, i think, is in turning your oven temp up high and stretching the dough thinner than you think you should. this ensures a crisp and snappy crust and beautifully caramelized toppings—in this case, smoky bacon pieces, cubes of butternut squash, rings of softened onion, and cheese for days.

i’ve made this twice now, and the second time i decided to top it off with some arugula for greenery (it is a new year, after all, and time to eat healthier) and a quick shakeover with our trusty jar of red pepper flakes. what i got was something so close to what i used to order from my favorite little pizza joint downtown – but heaps cheaper and fun to make, to boot. 

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Roasted Bacon and Butternut Squash Pizza
Adapted from Parade Magazine
Makes 4 servings
 
1 tsp. olive oil, or cooking spray
12 oz. diced butternut squash
2 slices thick-cut bacon, sliced crosswise (I used Trader Joe’s uncured apple smoked bacon)
½ medium red onion, sliced
Cornmeal, for sprinkling 
1 lb. pizza dough
6 oz. mozzarella, cubed
¼ cup Parmesan, finely grated
Crushed red pepper, for sprinkling (optional)
About 3 oz. baby arugula, for serving (optional)
Aged balsamic vinegar, for drizzling (or regular balsamic, simmered until thick) 

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Lightly coat a roasting pan or heavy baking sheet with oil or cooking spray, then scatter with butternut squash, bacon, and red onion. Roast 25 minutes, tossing ingredients around once or twice so they brown evenly on all sides. Remove from oven and increase temperature to highest setting, usually 500°F to 550°F.
  3. Sprinkle a large (12-by-17-inch) baking sheet lightly with cornmeal. Stretch dough roughly over baking sheet; no need to form a perfect rectangle. Scrape roasted vegetable and bacon mixture over dough. Scatter with mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake until browned, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper and top with arugula, if using, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar to serve.

honey mustard brussels sprouts slaw

honey mustard brussels sprouts slaw

every once in a while, a salad-eating mood will strike and all i will want for a week is a generous bowl of fresh and crisp-crunchy veggies dressed and drizzled with something kicky and flavorful. this salad sure was the ticket on one such recent week.

it involved having to brave the use of one gleaming food processor slicing blade attachment, but i was heartily rewarded with the resulting meal. toothsome shreds of brussels sprout leaves (the perfect texture when we’re going for a dinner salad), crunchy slivered almonds, sweet and chewy dried cranberries, and a healthy sprinkle of parmesan for a caesar-salad-like spin, all tossed with a garlic-spiked honey mustard. 

everything tasted perfectly proportioned, and i got to finish my meal feeling like i ate healthy – and deliciously. 

Honey Mustard Brussels Sprouts Slaw
Adapted (barely) from Cookie + Kate
Makes 4 servings

Coleslaw:
1 pound Brussels sprouts
⅓ cup slivered almonds, toasted 

⅓ cup dried cranberries
⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese 

Honey mustard dressing:
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, pressed 
¼ teaspoon garlic salt 

  1. Shred the sprouts: First, cut off the tough ends of the sprouts and any browning outer leaves. Then shred them in a food processor using the slicing blade, pressing the sprouts against the blade with the provided plastic pusher. If you don’t have a food processor, slice them as thinly as possible using a sharp chef’s knife, then give them a few extra chops for good measure.
  2. Combine the olive oil, vinegar, honey, mustard, and garlic in a jar and shake until emulsified. In a medium serving bowl, toss the shredded sprouts with the almonds, dried fruit, Parmesan, and dressing. Serve.

thai beef stir-fry with chiles and basil

dishes like these are magic. when you’re uncomfortably wedged between a pressing to-do list and an ominous tummy-rumble, recipes that come together this quickly are a lifesaver. just like this one and this one, they prove that fresh, wholesome, delicious food is possible even on a deadline. it’s fast food, no drive-through window necessary. 

the list of ingredients is mighty short but still somehow creates a bowlful of savory, flavorful comfort food. like i said: magic.

Thai Beef Stir-Fry with Chiles and Basil
Adapted from Orangette
Makes 2-3 servings 

4 large garlic cloves, chopped
4 to 5 Thai (aka bird’s eye) or serrano chiles, sliced
pinch of salt
1 Tbsp. oil
6 to 8 oz. ground beef
1 Tbsp. fish sauce, or more to taste
pinch of sugar
¼ cup chicken stock or water
2 large handfuls of basil leaves
jasmine rice, fried eggs, and lime wedges, to serve

  1. Stir together the garlic, chiles, and salt. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat, add 1 tablespoon oil, and add the garlic, chiles, and salt. Stir-fry for a few seconds until fragrant; then add the beef. Continue to cook, stirring, until the beef is cooked through and just starting to brown. Add 1 tablespoon fish sauce and the sugar. Add the basil and stock or water, and stir just until the basil is wilted. Remove from the heat. 
  2. Scoop the rice into bowls, and then divide the beef and its juices over the top. Crown with the fried eggs. Serve immediately, with a good squeeze of lime.

sweet+spicy sesame noodles

i love this dish. as a person who loves bread and cheese and pastas with cream sauces and who perks up at the sight of anything fried in panko, it can be hard to get the veggies in and be excited about it. but this – this is a pretty exciting bowlful of flavors and textures.

the dressing is key here, but it is one of the simplest you could possibly shake up. if you don’t have them there already, the main ingredients are very pantry-friendly: just a bottle each of honey, soy sauce, and sesame oil, plus a little jar of red pepper flakes. keep those on hand and you’re all set for a quick and yummy meal any day of the week.

it is an amazing weeknight dish, when i don’t have much time to stand in front of the stove but still crave a bowl of something fresh and delicious. for nights like that it’s handy to prepare the dressing and toppings ahead of time; that way all you’d need to do is cook your desired portion of noodles, give the dressing another good shake, then toss-top-eat.

it’s recipes like this one that make me feel like i just might have a handle on adulthood. work hard, eat well; life is good.

Sweet & Spicy Sesame Noodles
adapted from A Small Snippet
Makes 4 servings

¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup sesame oil
1 Tbsp. crushed red pepper
6 Tbsp. honey
6 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 bunch of green onions, thinly sliced
12-14 oz. rice noodles
1-2 lb. chicken breast, poached then roughly chopped
About 2 cups shredded carrots
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
¾ cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped
Toasted sesame seeds, for sprinkling

  1. Heat both oils and crushed red pepper in a small pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Strain out pepper and reserve oil.
  2. In a mason jar or other shakable container, combine oil with honey and soy sauce. Add green onions. Shake until combined.
  3. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain.
  4. Pour honey-soy dressing over hot noodles and toss. Top each individual serving with chicken, carrots, cilantro, peanuts, and toasted sesame seeds. 

dinner in

this may be my newest favorite weeknight meal. after eating so much steak, i was in the mood for a really good pasta dish, something with the bite of al dente noodles smothered in something richly tomato-y. i usually come upon recipes haphazardly – a food blog post or food network episode that strikes my fancy, an article in the morning paper that has me reaching for the scissors – but this time i was deliberate, heading over to epicurious and typing in every keyword i was craving. this winner came up.

if those steaks au poivre are something to bring to a candlelit table set for two, then this pasta recipe is a time to tag-team it in the kitchen, bumping elbows while you take turns stirring and chopping and scooching in close at the stovetop, and then mixing up a big bowl to spoon servings from before settling down to watch the week’s netflix pick. a cozy, casual dinner in – at its delicious best.


Pasta with Spicy Sun-Dried Tomato Cream Sauce
adapted fromBon Appétit, October 2000
Makes 4 main-course servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
8 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 8-oz. jar oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
½ cup whipping cream
1 12-oz. jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup milk
1 lb. penne pasta
about ½ cup fresh basil, c
hopped or chiffonade, for garnish

  1. Make sauce: Heat oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add tomatoes, cream, red peppers and crushed red pepper; simmer over medium heat 2 minutes. Stir in ½ cup basil and simmer 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and add cheese and ½ cup milk and stir until incorporated; add more milk as needed to reach desired consistency.
  2. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain, reserving ¾ cup pasta cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot. Add sauce, and toss to coat. Add enough reserved cooking liquid to pasta to moisten if dry. Season with salt and pepper. Top with more basil to serve.

baked gnocchi with spinach & prosciutto

i fancy myself as more of a baker than a cook. mincing onions and garlic and searing meat will never have the same appeal as crumbling streusel topping over cake batter or swirling chocolate and cream together to make ganache. i don’t like eyeballing amounts and adding salt to taste nearly as much as i love teaspoons and tablespoons and cups and very precise directions.

 


but if there is a class of savory dishes that i take pleasure in making, it’s those of the bake-until-browned-and-bubbly sort. i guess that makes me a casserole kind of girl – though this one is no ordinary casserole.

it comes from a little booklet of recipes that came free with a magazine i bought when i went to australia. three months it had sat unnoticed, tucked among some other magazines stacked in my bedroom, but today the cover photo caught my eye. it seemed just the thing for dinner, with a cold glass of sparkling wine.


it is unbelievably fast to assemble, and the brief time it spends under the high heat of a broiler is actually what allows for the dish’s wonderful play of textures. plump, squidgy gnocchi (a pasta made with mashed potatoes) is coated in rich mascarpone cheese; fresh tomatoes – only slightly cooked – still pop with juicy sweetness; the spinach wilts just barely in the heat and keeps its vibrant green color; and salty ribbons of prosciutto twirl throughout the dish – a perfect companion to the crust of peppered parmesan on top of everything.

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[this is just the kind of meal you could put together on a weekday work night, fit snugly between your drive home from the office and the time when friends start showing up to gather on your couch and watch a favorite tv show. (personally, i’ve been missing my weekly dose of community.)]

note: i was able to find all the ingredients at my local trader joe’s.

Baked Gnocchi with Spinach & Prosciutto
adapted from a recipe in a free supplement to
Australian Good Food, April 2010
Serves 4


17.6 oz. package gnocchi
8 oz. tub mascarpone cheese
2 to 3 oz. prosciutto, cut into strips
6 oz. baby spinach
8 oz. cherry tomatoes, halved
ground black pepper
½ cup grated Parmesan

  1. Preheat broiler.
  2. Cook gnocchi according to directions on package. Drain. Transfer to a large bowl. Add mascarpone to hot pasta and stir until melted.
  3. Add prosciutto, spinach, and tomatoes and toss to combine. Transfer mixture to a 6-cup capacity baking dish (that will fit in the broiler). Season with pepper and top with parmesan.
  4. Cook in broiler about 3 inches from heat source for 4 to 5 minutes, until top is golden. Serve.

mustard-roasted fish

this recipe is a triple threat: easy, fast, and good. and on these late summer days, that is exactly what i want: less time in the kitchen, more time to be out in the backyard lingering and lunching under the patio table umbrella, for as long as the shade will stay.

the hardest thing about preparing this dish is chopping the shallots. everything else gets spooned out and stirred together and poured over slender fillets of fresh white fish.

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slide the pan into the oven, check your watch every ten minutes or so, and pretty soon you have something elegant and effortless: tender fish, cloaked in a creamy sauce, browned just around the edges of the pan, little kicks of salt in the capers, and just simply delicious.


Mustard-Roasted Fish
recipe by Ina Garten
Serves 4 to 6

4 (8-ounce) fish fillets such as red snapper {I used mahi-mahi the first time – though I had the best results with a type of fish called swai, which was not only inexpensive but also had a faintly sweet taste that i liked}
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces crème fraîche
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons drained capers

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. (You can also use an ovenproof baking dish.) Place the fish fillets skin side down on the sheet pan. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
  3. Combine the crème fraîche, 2 mustards, shallots, capers, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Spoon the sauce evenly over the fish fillets, making sure the fish is completely covered. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until it’s barely done. (The fish will flake easily at the thickest part when it’s done.) Be sure not to overcook it! Serve hot or at room temperature with the sauce from the pan spooned over the top.

cheater’s pizza

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i don’t have much tolerance for pizzas that replace the crust with some non-crust material. english muffins, split and smattered with sauce and cheese and given a run through the toaster oven – they were fun as a kid. but a good yeast dough will bake up to be crispy, tender, and chewy in the oven – a perfect platform for whatever you decide to strew on top – and you really shouldn’t mess with it.

however.

there may come a time in life when you welcome a meal that can be toasty and tasty in five minutes flat. and so you realize you’ve got to swap out the yeast packets and floured hands and rising time for something a bit more efficient. when you’re ready to make such a compromise, back up from the english muffins; grab a package of flatbread instead. after a short time in a hot oven, each round gets browned and crisp around the edges and – with enough choice ingredients layered on top – you forget to be a snob about it and just bite, chew, and enjoy.

i got to eat this gourmet-ish dinner nearly every evening this week thanks to a friend who, instead of showing up to dinner with a bottle of wine for the hostess, handed me a printout of this recipe.


note: while getting all the ingredients from trader joe’s may not be wholly necessary, it sure adds to the whole “easy” part of it.

also: you will end up with some extra prosciutto and cheese after you make the pizzas, but i’m sure you can find a way to “take care” of the leftovers.

and: there will be sauce left too. that’s just annoying. i apologize.


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Easy Goat Cheese & Prosciutto Pizza
Makes 8 small pizzas


1 package Trader Joe’s Middle Eastern flatbread
1 jar Trader Joe’s pizza sauce
1 package Trader Joe’s string cheese (For real.)
1 package prosciutto (about 5 oz.)
5 oz. goat cheese with herbs
balsamic caramelized onions*
several leaves of fresh basil, sliced in chiffonade (for pretty!) or torn into small pieces

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. On one flatbread, thinly spread 1 ½ teaspoons of pizza sauce. Distribute one string cheese on pizza, crisscrossing shreds for even coverage. Tear half a slice of prosciutto into small bits and distribute on pizza, followed by small chunks of goat cheese and caramelized onions. Repeat process for each flatbread.

Bake for 6 to 7 minutes (closer to 5 if using a toaster oven), until cheese is bubbly and lightly browned.

Sprinkle with basil and serve.

*To make the balsamic caramelized onions: Melt a few tablespoons of butter (2 to 4 depending on the size of your onion) in a pan over high heat. Cut an onion in half, remove skin, and slice into half-moons. Throw onion slices into pan and let them brown over high heat, stirring or shaking the pan only occasionally. When the onions have gotten soft, brown, and caramelized (about 10 minutes), pour in a few glugs of balsamic vinegar (about 2 tablespoons, or to taste). Continue to cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the vinegar has reduced and coats the onions (a few seconds more). Remove from heat.

linguine & company

i think there should be a cuisine called “classy comfort.” is there already? [update: google that, and you’ll be led to a frightening website for adult diapers.] i don’t mean the kind of thing where you take a comfort food staple like mac ’n’ cheese and upgrade it with truffle oil and whatnot. i mean the opposite, where a seemingly elegant dish somehow tastes like home. kind of like this one that i had posted about earlier.

well, in any case, i’ve found another contender: linguine with gorgonzola, potatoes, green beans, and sage. what makes it seem fancy? it has a long name, for one. and also the fact that it’s meatless (except that i made it with some diced pancetta thrown in, oops) and that it calls for “gorgonzola dolce.” i couldn’t find any at trader joe’s, by the way, which to me basically means it must be nonexistent. so i responded accordingly: tossed some regular blue cheese into my basket and adjusted the amount of butter when i got home to cook, as recommended by the recipe. still tasted damn fantastic.

you know what else is neat about this recipe? it has linguine and potatoes. maybe you think the pairing would be strange, but when i read that in the recipe title i got starry-eyed. two starches, together at last. double-carb time. and it’s a lovely thing, really. the pasta is al dente and forktwirl-worthy, and the soft chunks of potato absorb and exude beautiful flavors from the sage and butter and blue cheese.

it was so satisfying to cook, too: you lift the noodles and potatoes steaming out of the pot, and then let them settle down with the cheese, butter, and sage. stir, stir, stir, and a sauce comes together as everything melts. it reminds me a lot of this recipe for spaghetti with spinach, goat cheese, and sweet little tomatoes. they’re both good weeknight quickie meals: a summery version and this cold-weather one, which was just about perfect this week, as our season’s first storm set in.


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Linguine with Gorgonzola, Potatoes, Green Beans, and Sage
adapted from Sunset, October 2007
Serves 6

2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (I couldn’t find any at the store that weren’t green, so I just used three white potatoes, each about palm-sized)
1 tablespoon salt
1 pound linguine
6 fresh sage leaves
6 ounces blue cheese
4 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bag (10 oz.) frozen cut green beans

Peel potatoes and cut into 3/4-in. pieces. Put in a large pot, add 2 qt. water, cover, and bring to a boil. Add salt and linguine. Stir, cover, and return to a vigorous boil. Uncover and cook until linguine is tender to the bite, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop sage leaves. In a large serving bowl, mash cheese, butter, sage, and pepper together. Set aside.

Add green beans to pot, and bring back to a boil. Cook briefly, just until green beans are crisp-tender. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and set aside. Drain pasta and vegetables, shaking off as much water as possible. Pour pasta and vegetables on top of cheese-butter mixture. Toss to combine until cheese melts and coats pasta. If resulting sauce is too thick, add reserved pasta water, 1 tbsp. at a time. Serve hot, garnished with additional sage or pepper if you like.