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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hungry? Don't Really Wanna Cook? How About Some Fast Food, Homestyle

There are days I just don't want to cook.

Maybe I'm tired, maybe I don't feel like shopping ( I usually shop every day for my proteins & whatever produce inspires me), maybe I just can't face another sink full of dirty dishes. Somehow, going out to eat isn't the answer for me on days like this; it's rainy, it's cold, I'd rather stay at home, curl up with a glass of wine and watch an old movie or maybe the poor hapless Golden State Warriors (Go Monta Ellis! Please get better.. we NEED you, desperately).

These are days when I'm likely to reach for the take out/delivery menus.
We always opt for the delivery option.

There are three categories of go-to's for us: sushi from Osome, red curry (with either eggplant, pumpkin or chicken) & rice from Little Thai, or pizza (with subcategories of its own):
  • from Amici's the Boston with sausage added to it (my hubby's #1 option) or with spinach added to it (my idea)
  • a Potesto with sausage added from Za's, or
  • the Menage a Trois from Pizza Orgasmica with spinach added (I have a thing for spinach, olive oil, dairy & dough, don't ask)
However, after my trip to Canyon Ranch, I realized these seemingly innocuous occasional meals were sabotaging my attempts at weight loss. Particularly because I was ordering in so frequently these days.

We sold our Presidio Heights home last December, & with it, my 900 square foot dream kitchen, outfitted for and designed by me (with the help of my fab architects & contractors, of course). This tragedy is posted elsewhere in the archives.

(View of my former kitchen.) Left this........

Since the sale, we've taken temporary shelter in a rental on Russian Hill with fantastic unobstructed views of the bay and a 70 square foot kitchen fully equipped with a vintage 4 burner electric range from the late 1980's and the first Subzero side by side refrigerator ever sold .

.... for this (View of my current kitchen)

But at least I see this when I cry into my Riedel glass

While, things could be worse (there's an ok sized pantry, large drawers & some counter space), cooking in this kitchen was not something I looked forward to; so I didn't (except the holidays).

Not for 6 long weeks and a few extra pounds.

It was either learn to enjoy cooking in this kitchen or buy stretch pants from Chico's where the very chic overweight, middle-aged harrigan chooses to shop. Guess what I chose?

These days when I don't really feel like cooking, I survey the kitchenscape & see what I can scrounge up in 15 minutes or less.
It becomes a game & a fun food challenge for me. I channel my inner Top Chef wannabe & see if I can make something tasty to eat & pretty to look at with whatever the contents of my refrigerator and pantry have to offer.

It's easier than you think.

All you need are high quality items that are staples in your kitchen. Items that you consistently replenish as you use them to have on hand when you need them.

For me, they are pasta (dried or fresh), a couple of types of rice, panko, balsamic vinegar, jerez vinegar, rice wine vinegar, mirin, extra-virgin & light olive oil, toasted sesame oil, grapeseed oil, a block of parmigiano reggiano, creme fraiche, mascarpone, greek yogurt, some kind of chevre, some kind of aged cheddar, white truffle oil &/or white truffle butter, unsalted butter, dried lentils, canned cannellini, canned black beans, soy sauce, thai fish sauce, red curry paste, coconut milk, sriracha sauce, eggs, frozen peas, half & half, baby spinach leaves, a head of broccoli, baby carrots, chipotle paste & or canned chipotles in adobo, frozen veal stock, frozen veal demi, frozen berries, frozen edamame, frozen leftover meat ragu, Wolfgang Puck's organic boxed chicken & vegetable stock, dried porcini mushrooms, macadamia nuts, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts (in the freezer), dried cranberries, oatmeal, cornstarch, a feww types of flour, arrowroot, Italian san marzano whole tomatoes & a tube of paste, canned whole fire-roasted tomatoes, capers, shallots, garlic, onions, various dried herbs & spices, whole nutmeg, fresh black & green olives, French Picnic's frozen pastry circles, scottish smoked salmon, avocado, lime, lemon, prosciutto, fig jam, mayo, dry tablewines in our Le Cache, Peets coffee beans & cocoa powder, whole wheat bread, corn tortillas, whole wheat pitas.

Looks like a long list, huh? If it were in your pantry & fridge, it wouldn't take up as much space as you'd think and from it you can create a multitude of dishes in any vernacular, anytime you want to eat. Of course, your pantry could look much different. Just stock things you like, some things that have a longer shelf life, some things that are fresh, some frozen, a cooking oil, a drizzling oil, something acidic like vinegar or citrus etc. Just be sure to buy butters and oils in small quantities; oils can get rancid & butter can pick up refrigerator odors that may not lend them a beautiful bouquet.

Here's what I scrounged up last night; took 15 minutes with most of the time spent waiting for the proverbial pot to boil ( I swear I wasn't watching it):

Porcini Mushroom Tortellini with White Truffle Butter, Baby Spinach

Note: Told you I had a thing about spinach, olive oil, dairy & dough! This is hardly a recipe so I'm not going to approach it as one. I'll just talk you through it.

There are six ingredients plus seasoning. It's more like an assembly of ingredients than a recipe which is almost all you usually need to do when you're foraging for dinner from your fridge. It all gets cooked in one pot. The pasta pot. You'll need:
  • a Chinese style bamboo-handled wok strainer or rough equivalent.
  • A microplane for the cheese.
  • A tablespoon.
  • A pair of tongs for the spinach.
  • A wooden spoon.
  • A pair of potholders.
  • Clean hands.
  • A kitchen towel
  • A large heat-resistant serving bowl, placed near the pot with the truffle butter in it.
  • All of your ingredients assembled in front of you near the cook surface. There are not many & they do not require measuring just have all the lids & caps off. Unless you like to stage things for better organization, then by all means, meez away! It's what the pros do (mise en place, "set in place", that is)
  • Be sure to have red pepper flakes & sea salt handy
Let's discuss the ingredients, mostly local & worth seeking out to have in your pantry. Click on their producer's names to read more about them.

  • I had 2 packages of nice porcini mushroom tortellini made with fresh egg pasta from Bologna's Bertagni, "the oldest manufacturer of tortellini" available at Whole Foods. You can use any good dry pasta, too, like Cipriani's extra thin tagliarelli egg pasta or Rustichella d'Abruzzo's luscious parpardelle or farfalle, all available at Marina Meats, Cal-Mart, Whole Foods, Bryan's or Cheese Plus.
  • about 2 -3 Tablespoons of truffle butter. The truffle butter comes from Fabrique Delice out of Hayward, Ca. It has real truffle in it & true truffle flavor. (or as close as you can get 5000 miles away from where they are foraged). I prefer it to the truffle oil I had on hand for its warm, round truffle essence (also available at Whole Foods). Some truffle oils get too astringent or acrid tasting which would have marred the luscious creamy flavor I was looking for in this dish.
  • I put about 3 Tablespoons of creme fraiche from Kendall Farms, located in the heart of California's Central Coast, Atascadero; not too far from a dear friend of ours, Greg Lynn, owner of Ambullneo Vineyards, one of the best, if not the best, domestic pinot noir & chardonnay in the country. A stellar wine to have with this dish (and we did) if you can get it (and we can, yaaay!).
  • The fruity e.v.o.o. is also a Central Coast California product, Balzana, out of Santa Ynez. You'll need enough to coat the bottom of the pan plus more for drizzling on the pasta after its cooked.
  • The cheese is the king of cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano, accept no substitutes. Shaved not grated. As much as you like. I love to see those shards of cheese slowly melt over my pasta & spinach. Look at the Parmigiano-Reggiano official website, it's fabulous!
  • Two or three handfuls of baby spinach (depending on the size of your hands). The baby spinach is organic but came out of a box from Safeway's O Organics. I buy bulk items like water & detergent from Safeway & every once in a while, I'll throw in some produce like bagged spinach.
  • 1/3 of a handful of sea salt for the boiling pasta water
  • a pinch of herbes de provence
  • a pinch of red pepper flakes
  • a pinch of fleur de sel
  • a couple of grinds of freshly ground pepper
Bring an 8 quart pot of water over high heat to a rolling boil (obviously, we are only filling that pot 3/4 of the way up before we set it to boil).
  1. Add salt. Stir it in with your wooden spoon to help dissolve.
  2. When water starts to boil again, carefully add pasta, give it a gentle stir & reduce to medium high.
  3. Cook according to manufacturers directions. Fresh pasta, depending on it's thickness & composition, cooks quickly (2-3 minutes) so be vigilant, when tortellinis float to the top they are usually done. Taste them to test them, they should be soft but still have a little resistance to your teeth ("al dente"). Usually I say it's a matter of individual preference but tortellini & ravioli lose their precious filling, if you overcook them. So don't overcook them.
  4. When pasta is done, remove the pot from the heat & extract the pasta one ladleful at a time with the Chinese strainer; carefully allowing the water to drain over the pot before placing them into the waiting serving dish already filled with truffle butter near the stove. (This will keep them from breaking apart as they might if you just dumped them in a colander in the sink; & it has the added bonus of warming the serving bowl.)
  5. As soon as you have placed all the pasta in the bowl, shave a layer of cheese on it & give it a gentle stir with the wooden spoon to evenly coat the pasta with the truffle butter. Place the serving bowl on empty burner that has no heat on it to keep it warm while you cook the spinach.
  6. Drain the water out of the pasta pot into the sink. Wipe down any spills that may have occurred on the bottom surface or sides of the pot and place pot over medium high heat.
  7. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot, add a pinch of salt, a pinch of red chili flakes & a pinch of herbes de provence to the oil. Give it a stir & add the spinach, using metal tongs to saute spinach until it cooks down, absorbs the oil & begin to give off liquid. (about 1-2 minutes)
  8. Then add the creme fraiche, incorporating it into the spinach, until a sauce forms (about 1-2 minutes). Turn off heat. Adjust for seasoning (salt, pepper) & add on top of the pasta (or you can add the pasta to the pot to mix it with the spinach if you need to gently rewarm the pasta).
  9. Shave additional parmigiano over the spinach mixture to taste. Gently fold the spinach into the pasta, mixing without mashing. Add additional truffle butter or olive oil if pasta seems dry to you but remember this is not a "saucy" dish. It is meant to be a light creamy coating over the pasta but also restrained & elegant enough to taste the truffle in the butter & the porcini in the filling. Add an additional dusting of cheese if you like but don't drown it. Hubby & I usually eat this kind of dish out of one bowl with two forks. It forces us to sit closer, focus on each other as well as the food.
  10. Serve with a Pinot Noir or a little Brunello di Montalcino; a crisp French white burgundy like the '02 Bourgognes or other village wines from quality producers like Coche-Dury, Leroy are relative bargains & would be a different way to go by cutting through the richness of the fungi and the butter instead of complimenting them. Central coast chardonnay or sauvignon blanc can have the same effect as the white burgundies. Just stay away from the big oaky wines. You'll need a wine with more subtlety. Mangia, my darlings, mangia!

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