Saturday, January 24, 2009

Food for Neighbors

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         The past few weeks have presented far more of those occasions when you feel like you should bring over a hot dish than is statistically right. 2009 has started out unnaturally, and unfairly, skewed toward illness and death, and I hope it has gotten it out of its system and that this is not a trend.

So I’ve been making food for friends and neighbors, of the covered dish variety, the kind that on social occasions goes to pot lucks and church suppers (if I were the sort to go to church), but on sadder ones is designed to allow the recipient to take it out of the refrigerator, heat it in the oven, and have a complete meal without giving it a thought. Such food should be comforting and sustaining. It should be rich and flavorful, to compensate for the inevitability, on such occasions, that the senses of those eating will be as numb as the rest of them. Perhaps they will taste it, and know they are alive.

Today I am making macaroni and cheese for a neighbor whose husband is a bedridden invalid on oxygen and who is herself having surgery that will incapacitate her for many weeks. She has a school-age child, and though her mother is coming, taking care of three people, one of whom has to be shuttled back and forth to school, is a lot. The least I can do is provide supper.

The Family Macaroni and Cheese

This is the macaroni and cheese that I grew up on, exactly the way my grandmother made it. It will cure what ails you. Serves 6.

6 T unsalted butter
6 T flour
3 cups milk
1 lb aged, extra-sharp white cheddar, grated
½ cup grated parmesan (optional, but a nice addition)
½ tea salt
1/8 tea white pepper
1/8 tea freshly grated nutmeg
16 oz can imported Italian plum tomatoes (or some fresh or imported canned cherry tomatoes)
1 lb dried penne with lines or small shells

1 ½ cups fresh breadcrumbs
2 T unsalted butter

1 whole chicken breast with skin (about 1 ½ lb), optional


Butter a 3-qt baking dish. Preheat oven to 350F.

If using the chicken breast, place it in a pot and barely cover it with water. Bring it to a boil, covered, then lower the heat a little and boil gently for 10 minutes with the lid ajar. Remove from the heat and let it cool, covered, in the broth.

In a large heavy pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter until it sizzles, but do not let it brown. Add the flour and stir well; it will foam up and become OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         pasty. Cook for a minute.

Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, gradually add the milk, starting slowly to allow it to combine and begin to form a smooth sauce. (If using chicken, you can substitute 1 cup of the light cooking broth for 1 cup of the milk if you want). Raise the heat and let it come to a bubble, until thick, stirring all the while. Reduce the heat and season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Let it simmer for a few minutes over low heat, stirring so it does not scorch. Add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring until smooth. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Boil the pasta in salted water until just tender; cook it about 2 minutes less than directed. While the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         pasta is cooking, drain the tomatoes and chop very   roughly. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce; fold it in well. Add the tomatoes and fold gently.

Turn the macaroni and cheese into the buttered dish. Sprinkle well with the breadcrumbs to cover completely, and dot with butter. Cover with foil and bake at 350 F for about 15 minutes; remove the foil and cook another 15 minutes, or until bubbling and hot in the center. If you have refrigerated it, bring it room temperature before cooking.

To make fresh breadcrumbs: Trim crusts from firm fresh white bread, tear into large pieces, and put into the food processor. Pulse until you have medium-fine crumbs. Store leftovers in the freezer; thaw before using.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lentils for Luck: Happy New Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         After The Sopranos, everyone knows that the part of New Jersey where I grew up is full of Italians Americans. In fact, Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist had her office in the next town over from where I grew up; his aunt went into a nursing home in the town where I lived when I was a baby; and all kinds of things happened in Newark, where I was born; I pretty much lived my youth in Soprano country.

But I lived in an upper middle class town, and though we were surrounded by Italians my experience with Italian food at the time was limited to the inimitable New Jersey pizza on Friday nights; linguine with clam sauce at the famous Clam Broth House in Hoboken; and the occasional lovely supper of bragiole or lasagna at my friend Maria’s house. Her father, a doctor, used to scold me for putting lots of pepper on my food, claiming that hot food would give me ulcers, and I remember thinking that was a funny thing for a man whose name was Dante to say.

It was not until I arrived in Rhode Island for college that I really began to eat Italian food much the way I used to eat salt bagels or crumb cake at home: pretty much every day. For one thing, it was everywhere; where we had delis, luncheonettes, or Chinese restaurants in New Jersey, Rhode Island had little Italian places serving minestrone, pasta e fagioli, chicken cacciatore, burgers on Italian rolls and oven grinders, all kinds of pasta (baked ziti and stuffed shells were big), and veal parmesan. This was only natural: while New Jersey has the greatest number of Italians, Rhode Island has the largest percentage (New Jersey is third). And while both states are small and densely populated, Rhode Island is so tiny and has so many fewer cultural influences that the presence of Italian Americans is, as we might say here, in your face.

My first Sunday family meal at the house of an Italian friend resulted in my mistaking the lasagna for dinner, only to find it followed by a huge roast. I learned quickly to pace myself, and this same friend kindly gave me some formal preparation for the series of courses one could expect during the holidays, and the expectation that I would have to eat every one, and seconds, too. One year I was invited over for New Year’s. My friend’s mother served a big dish of lentils with a large sausage: the lentils, I was told, signified coins—wealth for the New Year. Lentils are not as convincing a coin as the golden gelt of Hannukah, not even if you try to envision them as tiny copper pennies. And of course gelt seems luckier than legumes to a child or other fancier of chocolate (me, for example). But the combination of lentils with pork was very good, and this first exposure to lentils at age 19 remains a fond introduction, both to the food and the tradition.

Last New Year’s I made a luxurious dish, lobster bisque, but this year lentils and pork seem to suit the simpler times. We could all use a few extra coins, and a little luck. So here is my version of lentils and pork, with a little pasta, too, and sage, in hopes of imparting a little wisdom. There’s something to be said for being sadder but wiser.


Mini Farfalle with Lentils, Pork, and Sage

Light but satisfying, you could serve this as a first course or the main dish. Serves 3-4.

1/2 lb  sweet Italian sausage
3 T milk
pinch salt and nutmeg, few twists of the pepper mill

1/2 cup minced carrot (about 1 medium)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
2 tea minced garlic
2 T olive oil
1 tea butter

1 tea minced fresh sage
zest of a small lemon

1 1/4  cup cooked lentils (about 1/2 cup dry)
2 cups dried mini farfalle or other small pasta shape

freshly grated parmigiana
additional whole sage leaves for frying (optional)


Peel and mince the carrot and the garlic. Using a grater, zest the peel of the lemon onto a piece of wax paper. Stack 4 or 5 large sage leaves, roll them tightly and chop fine; add them to the lemon zest. If desired, dip the remaining, largest sage leaves in flour, shaking off the excess. In a deep frying pan, place about ½” vegetable oil and heat to about 350-375 F; fry the sage leaves in the oil very briefly, until they crisp. Remove to paper towels.

Wash and pick over the lentils. Bring 3 cups water to a boil; add the lentils, and when the water returns to the boil, reduce the heat to a moderate bubble and cook the lentils, partially covered, until just tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

While the lentils are cooking, crumble the sausage into a large frying pan and cook, chopping with the side of a wooden spoon, over medium heat until the  meat just loses its color; do not allow it to brown. Add the small amount of salt, pepper, and nutmeg as it cooks, and then the milk, continuing to cook until the milk is absorbed. Remove to a bowl, and clean out the pan.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Put the pan back on the stove, add 1 T olive oil, and heat over moderate heat. Add the carrots and cook slowly for about 2-3 minutes without browning. Set aside.

Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water for about 6 minutes; drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Return the frying pan with the carrots to the stove, add the remaining T of olive oil and 1 tea butter over moderate heat, then add the garlic, sautéing for a minute. Add the cooked sausage, 1 cup of lentils, and the pasta; toss, adding in a little of the reserved pasta water. Stir in the lemon zest and sage.

Serve, sprinkling over some of the remaining 1/4 cup of lentils, and garnish with freshly grated parm and, if desired, fried sage leaves.