Back to Basics & Traditional Marinara Sauce

A friend recently confessed that she doesn’t make her own tomato sauce. She buys it at the supermarket, all made and packed in a jar. Before I go any further, I guess I should add that this particular woman is Italian-American. While I can’t verify, I’ve got to assume that her nonna is turning in her grave.

I did my best version of tough love by simultaneously expressing outrage and sympathy. Although, I’m not quite sure why I should be sympathetic. Tomato sauce, marinara in Italy, is both easy to make and takes almost no time at all. Besides, there is just enough chopping in a single batch to calm you down at the end of a tough day. (If it’s been a really, really tough day, better keep the knife in the block and order take-out.)

An added bonus, marinara freezes beautifully. So, go ahead and stir up several quarts to enjoy throughout the fall and winter. It is the perfect way to spend a rainy fall afternoon. Turn on some music, sing along and dance around the kitchen surrounded by the warm and wonderful aroma of garlic, onion and herbs simmering in tomatoes and wine.

Now, if your roots are not in Italy, there are loads of variations on this theme. Tomato sauces are found around the world. Perhaps, you’ve heard of the five mother sauces of French cuisine. Yes, tomato is one of them. Where ever you may travel, if locals can grow them, you’ll probably find tomato sauce in one form or another. Or to-mah-to sauce, if you prefer.

Just as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are the building blocks of mathematics, a handful of recipes are culinary basics. These basics are at the heart of many meals and the foundation for new invention. What are they? Well, you can find them on dozens of lists. You know what I’m talking about; these lists have names like Five (or Ten or Twenty or More) Essential Recipes Everyone Should Know. There are a bunch of them. I think maybe I should put a list together. Anyway, in case you haven’t noticed, tomato sauce is on all or at least most of them.

Tomato sauce is definitely one of the basics in Mediterranean cuisine. A quart of marinara is good for more than a quick and easy meatless Monday spaghetti supper. A lot more. It is perfect for braising chicken, beef or lamb. It is just as good in a fish soup. Add ground beef or turkey or pork or veal or some combination to your marinara and it becomes Bolognese, a hearty sauce for fettucine. Play around with the spices and that Bolognese is perfect for moussaka or pastitsio.

Some might ask, “Why bother?” Simple, your homecooked sauce will be better than anything you’ll find in a jar. It won’t be filled with preservatives and weird ingredients you can’t spell or pronounce. In addition, you’ll be rewarded with almost instant gratification. From start to finish, it takes about a half hour to make a quart of marinara for a delicious dinner to share with those you love. And by the way, for about twenty of those minutes the sauce is simmering. Except for an occasional stir, you are freed up to make a salad or do whatever needs doing – including relaxing with a glass of wine. With a little more time, you can use it as the base for a fabulous chicken cacciatore, an Italian beef stew, lasagna or whatever suits you tonight.

Happy cooking and bon appétit!

Traditional Marinara Sauce

If it’s been a while or never since you made homemade marinara, there is no time like the present. Enjoy!

Makes about 1 quart

  • Olive oil
  • About 1/3 large onion, chopped
  • 1/2-1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon Italian herbs
  • Pinch or to taste dried chili pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup dry red wine
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons chopped, fresh basil

Heat a little olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot and season with the herbs, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes more.

Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add the crushed tomatoes and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the basil and simmer for a minute or two more.

Use about 1/2 cup of sauce for each serving of pasta or include it in your favorite tomatoey casseroles, braises and soups.

Feel free to make a big batch; I usually make about 6 quarts at a time. The only things you don’t need to multiply by six are the carrot and bay leaf – 1-2 carrots and 1-2 bay leaves should do it.

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If They Can … You Can & Risotto with Fresh Corn & Grilled Tomatoes 

If NASA can put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth …

If Oprah can turn cauliflower into pizza …

If I can teach little kids to hit a baseball …

… you can more or less do whatever you set your mind to.

About the baseball thing, let me explain. When I was in the second grade my report card noted that, although I was a sweet little girl, I was a dismal failure at the bean bag toss. I’m sure the teacher didn’t use the words dismal or failure but you get the picture.

It was a family joke for years and still pops up from time to time. Quite simply, I was that kid. The one who couldn’t throw or catch a bean bag or ball, shoe, orange or whatever. Forget about connecting a ball to bat or ball to foot or racket or goal or anything else. Oh, sure, once in a blue moon I won a tennis game but never a match. I never hit a home run and tripped over more than one soccer ball. The whole eye-hand (or foot) coordination thing just didn’t work for me.

You can imagine my surprise when I was drafted to coach T-ball. Of course, the commissioner or whatever they call the guy who organizes the teams was desperate. I figure he ran out names to call when he stumbled across my number in his directory. Anyway, he must have caught me at a weak moment because I said yes.

Either that or I somehow realized that he wasn’t taking the light blue team seriously. Perhaps they were Geneva’s answer to the Bad New Bears. Yes, this all happened when I was living in Geneva and at least half of the team didn’t speak English. One little girl didn’t speak French either. Two American dads, they were the red team’s coaches, divided up the kids. They stacked the deck, filling their roster with Americans who knew at least a bit about baseball and spoke English.

However, while I knew practically nuttin’ about baseball, I knew a whole lot about concentration. In addition, I spoke more than enough French to communicate the few basics I was able to grasp. By teaching the kids to concentrate on the ball – to ignore their friend on second base and not to worry about the bat – I taught them how to hit. One on one, I whispered to each child. I assured them that as long as he or she kept their eye on the ball, they’d hit it every time. With all seriousness and no shame, I attributed this no-fail/eye-on-the-ball thing to magic. After all, who needs skill when you have magic on your side.

Anyway, it worked. The light blue team won every game – yes, EVERY game.

But it’s not just kids who need focus and inspiration. We all do. A healthy measure of confidence and a little magic never hurts either. From that first day of kindergarten, fall has always been a time for new beginnings. With New England’s beautiful foliage, it’s also a magical time. Whatever your goal is for the coming months, if you set your mind to it and focus; you might just hit a home run.

Here’s to hitting it out of the park and bon appétit!

Risotto with Fresh Corn & Grilled Tomatoes 

September is the perfect, maybe the only, time for this dish. Local corn is at its peak and temperatures are cooling down. Homey and comforting but far from ordinary, risotto is great on a chilly night. Enjoy!

Serves 6 as a main course and 12 as a side dish

  • About 1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • About 5 cups chicken stock
  • About 4 cups (4-6 ears) fresh corn kernels
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated plus more to pass
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves cut in julienne

Preheat the grill to high.

Put the tomatoes and garlic in a bowl, drizzle with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.

Put the tomatoes and garlic in a grill pan, place on the grill and, stirring from time to time, grill on high until lightly caramelized, 4-5 minutes. Return the tomatoes to the bowl and fish out the garlic. Finely mince the garlic, add it back to the tomatoes, drizzle with the balsamic vinegar and toss to combine. Set aside.

Heat the chicken stock to a simmer and then reduce the heat to low to keep warm.

Lightly coat a large, heavy saucepan with a little olive oil and heat over medium. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until it starts to turn translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring for another 3 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium low, add the wine and simmer until the rice absorbs the wine. Add 1 cup stock and, stirring frequently, simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Continue to add stock, 1 cup at a time, and stirring, until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

Add the corn and nutmeg and cook, stirring for 2-3 minutes. Add the butter, cream and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and stir until melted and combined. Stir in half the basil.

Spoon the risotto into shallow bowls, garnish with grilled tomatoes, sprinkle with the remaining basil and serve. Pass more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for those that like a cheesier risotto.

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Back to a New Beginning & Spaghetti with Grilled Eggplant

Well, my goodness, how the heck did that happen? Today, yes today, is the first day of school in the district. Not to mention, the long Labor Day Weekend is coming up. By the way, there is something very wrong, very out of whack with that. School is supposed to start the day after Labor Day not the week before.

It’s been quite a while since I had to worry about finding the perfect back-to-school backpack or notebooks. That said, Labor Day does stir those not quite forgotten memories of a new start. The almanac claims that the new year comes on January 1 but that feels like just another winter day. However, the Tuesday after Labor Day – that’s something else. It’s not just another day on the calendar. It’s for jumping into new adventures. As a student and then a teacher, I spent more than a couple of decades doing just that. It still feels like a good time to start something new.

During the summer, schedules and routines seem to fall apart. One day, it’s too beautiful to stay inside and finish that project. Another is too hot to cook or write or think or do anything but float in the lake. My mother was always so sad on Labor Day. She loved our worry-free summers in New Hampshire. The first Monday in September always heralded the return to suburbia with its schedules and carpools.

If it’s not happened already, we’ll soon be back to our old routines or creating new ones. Long, lazy evenings on the beach will be cut short. Real shoes will replace flip-flops. Shorts will go into plastic bins and get stored in the attic. Book club and any number of other activities and responsibilities that were suspended over the summer will start up again.

Unfortunately, the whole idea, even the word routine sounds sooooo boring and, well, routine. However, there are some benefits. Creating routines that work for you, your priorities and your temperament will make you more efficient. With any luck, they’ll help you break a few bad habits and start a few good ones. Think of a new routine or return to an old one as a framework and a promise to yourself to accomplish a goal.

Now might be a good time to think about any changes you’d like to make. No, you don’t need to move across the country or start training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s okay to keep it simple. Maybe your new fall routine will include a walk every morning or cooking at home three times a week. Perhaps you’ll make room for a daily hour of quiet time to tackle that list of books you’ve been meaning to read. Or, you’ll finally take those Italian lessons, volunteer for a favorite cause or candidate or start tai chi. Whether it’s a skill you promise to learn or five pounds you want to lose, now is a good time to build a new routine to make it happen.

In the spirit of back-to-school, there will be rewards. Instead of a glowing report card, you will be rewarded in lots of small ways. Some will be intangible like the pleasure of getting lost in a wonderful book. Others will be easily discernible like the new found strength and stamina from regular exercise. While not always earth shattering, there’s something quite satisfying about taking on a challenge, large or small, and achieving success.

Carp diem and bon appétit!

Spaghetti and Grilled Eggplant
Farmstands and farmers markets are filled with wonderful local produce. Pasta tossed with fresh vegetables is a quick and easy dinner when the evenings start to cool. Enjoy!
Serves 8

  • 1 smallish red onion, cut in thin wedges
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon or to taste your favorite hot sauce (optional)
  • 4 smallish eggplants, trimmed and cut in half
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1/2-1 cup roughly chopped or cut in julienne basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • Grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or a combination of both

Preheat the grill to high.

Put the onion and garlic in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and toss again.

Put the onion and garlic in a grill pan, place on the grill and, stirring from time to time, grill on high until tender crisp. Return the onions to the bowl, fish out the garlic cloves, add the hot sauce and toss to coat. Finely mince the garlic, add it back to the onion and toss again.

Meanwhile, brush the eggplant halves with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the eggplant on the grill, cut side down, for 3-5 minutes or until nicely browned. Turn the eggplant, reduce the heat to low or place on a cool spot on the grill and continue cooking until the eggplant is tender, an additional 3-5 minutes. Remove from the grill and cut into bite sized pieces. Add the eggplant to the onion and garlic and toss to combine.

Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the pasta water, and return the spaghetti to the pan. Add the vegetables, pine nuts and basil, toss to combine, cover and cook on medium for about 1 minute. If the spaghetti seems dry, add a little pasta water.

Transfer the pasta to a deep serving platter or individual shallow bowls, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and serve with freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano or a combination of both.

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One Year Ago – Citrus & Spice Grilled Chicken
Two Years Ago – Cheesy Polenta with Fresh Corn
Three Years Ago – Fresh Corn with Sriracha Aioli
Four Years Ago – Romaine with Grilled Corn, Tomato & Avocado
Five Years Ago – Savory Parmesan Shortbread with Tomato Jam
Six Years Ago – Chocolate-Orange Tart
Seven Years Ago – Chicken Liver Pâté
Eight Years Ago – Blueberry Crisp
Nine Years Ago – Death by Chocolate Sauce
Ten Years Ago – Lemon Cupcakes
Eleven Years Ago – Couscous with Dried Fruit and Pine Nuts

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

Are you planning any changes this fall? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2019

 

 

 

Clocks Forward & Spaghetti with Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Bacon

Don’t forget to nudge your clocks forward an hour this coming Saturday. And by the way, I don’t like it one bit. Daylight is a scarce commodity in my neighborhood during the winter months. December is awful and it doesn’t get a whole lot better in January. Slowly, things improve in February. Finally, by the end of the month, a pale gray dawn peeks through my skylight and gently wakes me. Then BAM, the second Sunday in March plunges early mornings back into darkness.

Let me explain. I was one of those sleepy headed kids. The one that all the mothers in the neighborhood worried about oversleeping and missing kindergarten. That was then. Now, I like mornings and getting up around six. However, perhaps it’s a throwback, but I don’t like getting up in the dark. And by the way, who does? I dare you to name one person who loves their alarm clock.

Anyway, I like having the sun give me a poke and gently prod me out of the Land of Nod. I can stretch, turn on the news and luxuriate for ten minutes or so before bounding out of bed. Alright, okay, some mornings it is more of a shuffle than a bound. But either or, it’s hard to do when it’s still night outside. And yes, I know it stays light later and I should be grateful but it’s no help at six in the morning.

Some blame Benjamin Franklin for daylight saving time but they would be wrong. While living in Paris, Ben wrote a satirical essay entitled “An Economical Project.” After being rudely awakened at six o’clock one morning, he realized that Paris was in full sunshine. The early-to-bed/early-to-rise founding father’s essay promoted the thrifty advantages of working and playing in daylight. However, he never actually recommended a time change, His mocking prose indicates that, while not at all anxious to do so himself, Ben thought the rest of the world should get up with the sun.

Over decades and centuries, various proponents of daylight saving time have lobbied for the cause. It found temporary traction during World War I. It was once again implemented in World War II but discontinued with the armistice. However, this time, there were more than a few holdouts. A number of cities and towns across the country implemented their own daylight saving time, all with different start and end dates. At one point there were twenty-three different daylight saving time schedules … in Iowa alone.

The chaos ended with the Uniform Time Act. While giving states the option to implement or not, the Act standardized start and end dates. After moving around a bit, daylight saving time now runs from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.

And by the way, farmers have never lobbied for daylight saving time. The time change upsets the cows. They don’t care if it’s five, six or seven; both farmers and their cows like to wake up with the sun. (Perhaps I was a farmer in a past life.) On the other hand, urban and suburban businesses love it. It seems people shop more when it’s still light after work.

Anyway, there’s always the upside – enjoy the afternoon sunshine and bon appétit!

Spaghetti with Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Bacon
It’s not quite spring yet! There’s still plenty of time for cozy comfort food. Brussels sprout tossed with bacon and spaghetti is a cozy but easy weeknight meal. Enjoy!
Serves 4

Olive oil
About 4 ounces thick-cut bacon, chopped
About 8 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
1/4-1/2 cup chicken broth
About 1/4 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8-12 ounces spaghetti
1-2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
About 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Lightly coat a large oven-proof skillet with olive oil and heat over medium. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel and reserve.

Add the Brussels sprouts to the skillet and toss to coat. Add the chicken broth and roast the Brussels sprouts at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.

Add the onion and garlic, sprinkle with thyme, season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Stirring a few times, continue roasting the vegetables until tender and lightly browned, 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti according to package directions less 1 minute. Reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water, drain the pasta.

Add the spaghetti and bacon to the Brussels sprouts plus some pasta water, drizzle with vinegar and toss to combine. Cover and simmer on medium for 1-2 minutes.

Transfer the pasta to a large platter or individual shallow bowls, sprinkle with walnuts and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and serve.

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One Year Ago – Pork Stew with Beans & Greens
Two Years Ago – Shrimp Curry with Spinach
Three Years Ago – Mini Tarte Tatin
Four Years Ago – Lemon Roasted Chicken
Five Years Ago – Panna Cotta with Strawberries
Six Years Ago – Decadent Mac & Cheese
Seven Years Ago – Seared Scallops with Roasted Pepper Sauce
Eight Years Ago –
Creole Shrimp with Creamy Grits
Nine Years Ago –
Wild Mushroom Risotto
Ten Years Ago –
Swimming Pool Jello

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

Are you for or against or … the time change? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2019

How to Avoid a Power Outage & Chicken Soup Florentine

When we were little kids, an approaching snowstorm was cause for excitement. With any luck, school would be cancelled. Yes, we did love those snow days. As it so happens, I still do. Com’on, who doesn’t like to spend the day in leggings and a ratty, no-longer-allowed-in-public turtleneck?

Now, I grew up in suburbia where power outages were rare. A snow day meant we could hang out in our PJs and watch television or read books until Mom sent us outside to build a snowman. As a would-be grownup, I can still hang out but a movie binge only works if the power stays on.

My neighborhood generally loses power a couple times a year. It happens when heavy snow takes down a tree which in turn takes down a power line. Sometime, instead of snow, a monster wind knocks them down. Or a frigid rain leaves a thick coat of ice on the lines, causing them to snap. Finally, and thankfully less frequently, some yahoo drives too fast and takes out a pole.

Just like a kid with inside-out and backwards PJs and ice cubes down the toilet, I’ve developed a series of rituals to ensure the lights stay on in spite of an approaching storm. I suppose none of this would be necessary if I invested in a generator but what’s the fun in that?

These rituals are not foolproof but, heck, they worked for the last two storms. Feel free to join me. For any hope of success, you must complete all the steps. The order doesn’t matter but completeness does. Just think, you might save your neighborhood from a power outage. Here goes:

Have the power company’s number handy so you’re ready to call the minute the lights go out.

Fill at least three large buckets with water. You’ll need it to refill the toilet after flushing. Fill several jugs or pitchers with water for drinking and cooking.

Run the dishwasher – even half-full. You’ll want plenty of clean dishes if the power goes out.

Do any urgent laundry. Of course, you define urgent but, if it were me and I was down to my last pair of leggings, I’d do a load.

Take a nice long shower. You want to be clean too.

Rummage around and locate every flashlight in the house. Check the batteries and stock up as needed.

Have candles ready as well as matches. Dinner, even in a power outage, tastes better by candlelight.

Don’t be left incommunicado – charge your phone. While you’re at it, charge your tablet and laptop.

Make soup. Whether the snow is gently falling or the wind is howling, there is nothing like curling up in front of the fire with a good book and a mug of soup.

And, just in case the power stays out for a couple of day … have plenty of wine on hand.

It worked last week. Hopefully, it will next time! Bon appétit!

Chicken Soup Florentine
Lights on or off, this delicious soup is great on a cold, winter evening. Enjoy!
Serves 8

Olive oil
1 1/2-2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Pinch or to taste dried pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 or more quarts chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1 piece Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind* (optional)
1 pound whole mushrooms, trimmed and chopped
1 pound baby spinach

Heat a little olive oil in a large soup kettle over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken, 1-2 minutes per side. Remove from the pot and reserve.

If necessary, add a little more olive oil to the pot. Add the onion, celery and carrot, sprinkle with thyme and pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook 1-2 minutes more.

Return the chicken to the pot, add the stock, wine and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut or shred it into bitesize pieces.

Meanwhile, heat a little olive oil in a skillet, add the mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned.

Return the chicken to the pot and add the mushrooms. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.

This soup is best when made in advance to this point. If you have the time, cool the soup to room temperature and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

If the soup is too thick, add more stock. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the spinach and stir to combine and wilt. Simmer for 2-3 minutes and serve.

* Adding a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind will add flavor and richness to your soup.

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One Year Ago – Orecchiette with Cauliflower & Bacon
Two Years Ago – Romaine & Radicchio Caesar Salad
Three Years Ago – Sausages with White Beans
Four Years Ago – Chocolate Panna Cotta
Five Years Ago – Turkey Scaloppini with Prosciutto & Sage
Six Years Ago – Cheese Fondue
Seven Years Ago – Flatbread with Mushrooms, Caramelized Onions & Spinach
Eight Years Ago – Tuscan White Bean Soup
Nine Years Ago – Wild Mushroom Risotto
Ten Years Ago – Swimming Pool Jello

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What are your favorite snow day rituals? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2019

’Tis the Season for … Pasta & Gnocchi with Mushroom & Bacon Ragù

Winter is a great time for pasta. So much so that I seem to find a lovely bowl of warm and wonderful spaghetti, gnocchi or tortellini on my table at least a few times a week. I know the anti-carb lobby does not approve but there is something ever-so-cozy about pasta. Admit it, there’s nothing better on a cold winter night. Damp and rainy cold or polar vortex cold, it doesn’t matter – pasta is the answer.

Of course, you’ll never get bored because the variety of shapes and sizes is endless. It’s not just the hundreds of possible choices to throw in the boiling pot. The list of sauces goes on forever as well. Why – I bet you could enjoy a different dish every night for year without a single repeat.

When it comes to homemade pasta, I find that one thing leads to another. A batch of ravioli inspires a nest of tagliatelle. The same goes for gnocchi. I’ve no sooner served up a hearty platter of potato gnocchi that my brain starts to spin with new recipes. Spinach, butternut squash or what about roasted beet gnocchi? When was the last time you had a purple dinner?

Anyway, pillowy-soft gnocchi, tantalizing tortellini or a simply delicious fettucine, they all need a fabulous sauce. As kids, the only one to grace our table was a hearty Bolognese. However, we were in no way fancy enough to call it that. To us, it was simply Spaghetti Sauce. And by the way, my mother, who really never liked to cook, simmered up a mean Bolognese.

Eventually, I learned there was more to Italian cooking then a great red sauce. Given my penchant for pasta during the winter months, that’s a good thing, a very good thing. After a long day, if you have an urgent need for a cozy meal, consider pasta and any of the following for a quick and easy sauce:

  • Leftover roasted vegetables topped with browned butter and toasted hazelnuts are a wonderful combination – try butternut squash or cauliflower
  • For an early taste of spring, sauté asparagus, snow peas and spinach and drizzle with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil
  • Cacio e Pepe – made with butter, cracked pepper and cheese – it’s the minimalist’s answer to Mac & Cheese
  • Sauté your favorite spicy sausage with broccoli rabe and garlic and finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon
  • Simmer garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes in olive oil, wine and lemon and add clams
  • Sauté some onion with lots of garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes, add crushed tomatoes and simmer before adding shrimp, olives and a few capers
  • Whirl up a batch of bright green pesto with basil or your favorite herbs plus a sprinkle of cheese and nuts
  • Chop up a green sauce of spinach, herbs, olives and capers – finish with a touch of lemon and garlic
  • Anything with cream including just cream and cheese
  • Anything with bacon

The possibilities are endless. Bon appétit!

Gnocchi with Mushroom & Bacon Ragù
Last week’s column featured homemade Cheesy Potato Gnocchi. For a cozy supper, toss the gnocchi in an easy sauce of bacon and mushrooms. Enjoy!
Serves 6

1 1/2 pounds gnocchi,* homemade or store bought
6 ounces thick cut bacon, chopped
Olive oil
1 1/2 pounds whole mushrooms, trimmed and chopped
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons cognac
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/4-1/2 cup half & half (optional)
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

If making homemade gnocchi, prepare the gnocchi.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Lightly coat a skillet with olive oil and place over medium heat. Add the bacon and, stirring occasionally, cook until the bacon just starts to brown. Add the mushrooms and onion, sprinkle with rosemary and thyme, season with salt and pepper and sauté for 5-8 minutes. When the mushrooms start to brown, add the garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes more.

Add the wine, stir in the mustard and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cognac. Return the skillet to the stove, stir and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Add the broth and simmer until reduced by half. Reduce the heat to very low to keep warm.

Cook the gnocchi according to directions.

Use a spider or slotted spoon to add the gnocchi to the mushrooms and gently toss to combine. If the mixture seems dry, add the half & half or a little pasta water and toss again. Cover and cook on medium heat for 1 minute.

Transfer the gnocchi to shallow bowls and serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

* if you don’t have homemade gnocchi in the house, the ragù will be just as delicious with tortellini or fettuccine.

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One Year Ago – Pa Jun – Savory Korean Pancakes
Two Years Ago – Spaghetti with Mushrooms & Bacon
Three Years Ago – Oven Braised Chicken with Mushrooms, Onions & Garlic
Four Years Ago – Capellini with Lobster & Caviar
Five Years Ago – Sour Cream Cupcakes with White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting
Six Years Ago – White Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry Coulis & Fresh Raspberries
Seven Years Ago – Mixed Greens with Roasted Beets & Lentils
Eight Years Ago – Chicken Niçoise
Nine Years Ago – Greek Pizza
Ten Years Ago – Triple Threat Brownies

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What are your favorite dishes to cook up on a cold winter day? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2019

Holiday Cocktails & Cheesy Spinach Tartlets

The holiday season means holiday parties. Don’t ask me why but expectations always seem to be over-the-top. Forget a casual get-together; it just won’t do. No indeed, our holiday parties should sparkle. If you’re thinking of hosting one this year, you may be feeling a wee bit of pressure. It’s okay, take a deep breath and don’t panic. After all, ’tis the season for holiday magic.

Be it dinner for eight or cocktails for fifty, don’t worry, everything will be smashing. Not only will you figure it out, you might even keep your sanity. First, let’s start by stating categorically and for the record that one-of-a-kind, special and specular do not mean perfect. After all, why settle for perfect when you can have wonderful?

It starts with the company. Collect a group of brilliant, funny conversationalists and the party will be a success. Good company makes for a good party. However, add great food and a beautiful setting and the evening becomes exceptional.

Whenever you put together an eclectic group, it’s a good idea to enlist some kind of conversation starter. Some hosts do it with ugly sweaters or twenty questions. I find that food, yes food, is a fantastic ice breaker. Set out a beautiful cheese board and someone will share a story about a recent trip to France. Smoked salmon with all the fixings will encourage a tall tale of a fishing trip or Christmas Eve smorgasbord.

Keep it simple but elegant. There is no need to buy box after box of hors d’oeuvres from Trader Joes or Costco. Instead, think homemade and two or three, not tens, of different appetizers to pass. Add a few beautiful platters, scatter bowls of olives and nuts or other nibbles and you’ve got it covered.

Every family has its holiday food traditions. From oysters on the half shell to Christmas cakes and sugar cookies, certain foods are inextricably linked to yuletide. When planning your menu, consider bringing a few updated family favorites to the table. That said, you might want to skip the green Jello salad in the Christmas tree mold. Some things are better left in the past.

End on a sweet note. Let’s face it, at least a few of your friends are night owls and don’t know when it’s time to go home. A subtle and delicious hint is to put the savory treats away and pass a tray of holiday cookies. After all, aren’t you suppose to go home after dessert? Even if they don’t get the hint, be flattered. Everyone is having too much fun to call it a night.

Now for the decorations. Start with lots of greenery and boughs of holly. Next, big bowls of simple glass balls are lovely – especially in candlelight. Elegant gold and silver or cheery red – it’s up to you. Of course, you will want to bring out all your favorite decorations. Whether you have a grand army of nutcrackers or Santas from around the globe, your collection is part of your holiday story.

Finally, everything looks better by candlelight. I’m rather fond of red candles for the holidays but it’s up to you. Fat ones, skinny ones, tall and short, more is better so don’t be shy. (Do be careful to place candles where they won’t be knocked over. As much as we love our volunteer firefighters, I’m guessing you’d rather they come as guests – not to the rescue.)

Have a lovely party and bon appétit!

Cheesy Spinach Tartlets
For a delicious little nibble, pass flavorful tartlets at your holiday cocktail party. You can buy and fill phyllo tartlet shells or make your own pastry. Enjoy!
Makes about 24 tartlets

Savory Tartlet Pastry (recipe follows) or frozen Phyllo Tartlet Shells
Olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
8 ounces frozen spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry
2 large eggs
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon thyme
Pinch nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

If using Savory Tartlet Pastry, make the dough and divide into 1 1/2 to 2-inch balls. Place the balls in mini muffin tins and, using your fingers, shape each ball into a tartlet shell. Place the tins in the freezer for 15 minutes. If using phyllo tartlet shells, put the shells in mini muffin tins and store in the freezer until ready to fill.

While the dough chills, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and make the spinach filling.

Heat a little olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes more. Remove from the heat, stir in the spinach and cool for a few minutes.

Put the eggs in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the ricotta, season with thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Fold in the spinach and mozzarella.

Spoon the filling into the tartlet shells, sprinkle the tops with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and bake until the filling sets and the top and crusts are golden, about 20 minutes. Cool in the tins for 5 minutes before removing and serving. You may need to use a small knife to loosen the tartlets.

The tartlet shells and filling can be prepped 1 day in advance and stored separately.

Savory Tartlet Pastry
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
3 ounces cold cream cheese, cut into small pieces
2-3 or more tablespoons ice water

Put the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and cream cheese and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Gradually add the ice water and pulse until the dough comes together in large clumps. Remove the dough from the food processor, pat into a ball and wrap in plastic or parchment paper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

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One Year Ago – Romaine, Radicchio & Avocado Salad with Pomegranate & Walnuts
Two Years Ago – Garlicy Shrimp with Tomatoes & Olives
Three Years Ago – Wild Rice Pilaf with Roasted Mushrooms & Kale
Four Years Ago – Maple-Nut Sundaes
Five Years Ago – Rosemary Cashews
Six Years Ago – Greek Stuffed Mushrooms
Seven Years Ago – Ginger Crème Brûlée
Eight Years Ago – Aunt Anna’s Pecan Pie
Nine Years Ago – White Chocolate & Cranberry Trifle
Ten Years Ago – Chicken with Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Penne

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What are your favorite holiday cocktail party tips? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2018