What are you smoking?


It was just a tomato. A dead sexy tomato, for sure, still warm from the sun, plucked by my 8 year old from the front yard garden. And yet, it awaked in me an annual craving……

It is BLT time.

Say what you will about overstuffed Italian subs, gooey panini, comforting PB&Js, healthy turkey-on-whole-grain…the BLT is the queen of sandwiches. Perhaps not the vapid orange tomato, cold bacon standard at the diner counter, but elevated to its highest incarnation, a BLT is the stuff of dreams.

At my admittedly food-obsessed house, we like ours on whole grain toast, with mayonnaise, lightly salted slices of peak summer tomatoes that have never been in a fridge, crisp thick-cut bacon, crunchy leaves of romaine lettuce, and a few leaves of basil tucked in. Salt and pepper. Classic.

Unfortunately, I’m having gluten issues these days, and Peter is eating vegan most of the time. Both of us splurge in the face of deliciousness, but at least at home, we are pretty much a gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-as-a-flavoring family these days. Which doesn’t leave a lot of room for BLTs, which is sad.

So sad that I invented mushroom bacon.

I didn’t really invent it; the internet has many high-concept baconish mushroom ideas floating around. But I broke out my stovetop smoker, my friends, and smoked some mushrooms.* I started with fat, meaty king oyster mushrooms, procured from my beloved H-Mart. Hickory smoked them, thinly sliced them, dusted them with a salt, sugar, and smoked paprika spice blend, and crisped them in a touch of coconut oil. Bacon. From mushrooms. So good.

Smoked Whole Mushrooms

Now obviously this won’t fool anyone into thinking they are eating bacon, but it has the same umami flavor, and the crispy edges provide a little bit of bacon mouth-feel.

Crisping up thin slices.


Bacon mouth-feel, without the squeal.

I toasted some gluten-free bread, which can be okay if you shop around to find a brand that works for you, and slathered it with some non-vegan mayo. I added seasoned slices of that sexy tomato, lettuce, and my mushroom bacon, and you know what? It was a delicious BLT. Not merely “delicious for gluten- and bacon-free,” but “stand on its own, good enough to feed an Iowan pig farmer” delicious.

And I was no longer sad.

*If you want to experience this fake bacon goodness yourself, and don’t happen to have a stovetop smoker, you can totally rig one up. And while you have it puffing away, smoke some tomatoes for smoked tomato soup, or pop in a thick wild salmon filet for dinner or to flake onto salads, or toss in a dozen or two fresh clams, then make chowder from them.

Mushroom “Bacon”
Makes enough for 3-4 BLTs, plus kitchen nibbling while you pinch yourself over how good this is

4 big ol’ king oyster mushrooms –hen of the wood might work, but portobello are too watery. Smaller mushrooms might work unsliced.

2 tablespoons hickory chips
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons coconut oil, or vegetable oil if you still aren’t sure about the coconut oil thing

Using a stovetop smoker or similarly-rigged contraption, hot smoke the mushrooms, whole, over the hickory chips. Cool slightly, remove from smoker, and thinly slice mushrooms the long way. Arrange sliced mushrooms on a layer of paper towels, then blot with more towels to remove as much moisture as possible.

Mix together kosher salt, granulated sugar, and smoked paprika in a small dish. Sprinkle lightly over both sides of the sliced mushrooms.

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet—I used cast iron; it felt so right!–over high heat until just shy of smoking hot. Working in batches, fry the smoked mushroom slices in a single layer until golden and crisp at the edges, turning 2 or 3 times for best results. Transfer the crisped slices to a towel-lined plate to drain slightly before serving hot or at room temperature, on a magical sandwich or maybe next to some farm fresh eggs?

Celebrate.

This week, I’m sending you to my old blog, so you can you can join me in dancing.

Enthusiasm over authenticity….always.

Happy Lunar New Year!

We value enthusiasm over authenticity here, every single time. So when I decided to participate in fellow food blogger Diana Kuan’s Chinese New Year virtual potluck, I rallied my kids to whip up a festival of decorations. Within a few hours, we had construction paper lanterns, swirls of gold repurposed-Mardi-Gras beads, Chinese New Year wands (because what’s Chinese New Year without a wand?) and random envelopes, decorated with red magic markers and awaiting cash. And a centerpiece of bamboo from the neighbor’s yard intertwined with a collection of stuffed pandas. Because we have vision at our house!

The food was a bit more traditional. I made the Cold Sesame Noodles and Chinese Barbecued Pork from Diana’s new book, The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, along with whole fried fish (!), braised baby bok choy, and plain rice and plain fruit for the people in my family who like everything plain. And not touching.

What a feast! The Cold Sesame Noodles were an interesting deviation from my tried-and-true peanut noodles. I really liked the faint astringent note that the sesame paste added to the dish, balancing out some of the sauce’s richness. I loaded up my noodles with extra vegetables, because our 2013 mantra is EAT MORE PLANTS, and also because I love the crunch of a julienned snow pea in cold noodles. Its a thing with me. I used entirely non-authentic and probably-too-short-to-symbolize-long-life soba noodles, but they were a delicious choice. If you try this recipe, I’d add half the sauce, toss, and see if you need it all. Mine were a little overdressed, for my taste, but my mother always told me it was better to be overdressed than underdressed ; ).

The Chinese Barbecued Pork was delicious, too. I used a hunk of boneless pork shoulder, rather than the suggested pork belly, because I’m not a huge fan of pork belly (and also because said chunk of boneless pork shoulder was languishing in my freezer). I also borrowed a technique from another char sui recipe, suspending the pork on skewers over the roasting pan. I turned it often, brushing with honey each time, and was rewarded with succulent, flavorful pork. Next time, I’ll add a little more soy to the marinade, and cut my shoulder down into pork tenderloin sized pieces, so there is a greater crispy-sweet edge to tender pork ratio.

My fish didn’t get as crispy as I would have liked. At the asian market, the best looking whole fish were on the smaller side, so I bought two of them rather than the 2-3 pound fish suggested in most of the recipes I looked at. Maybe bigger fish mean longer cooking time, and accordingly, crispier skin? Or maybe I just need more practice. It was delicious, nevertheless, and happily devoured by 3 generations of bone-nibblers. And I felt smug, watching my 7 year old devouring head-on fish. My 5 year old was sitting at the other end of the table, eating only rice and grapes, but I love him too.

I have theory about food on the bone, another line in the sand dividing humankind: bone nibblers, and non-nibblers. Some people just love to work on their food, cleaning barbecued ribs down to pearly white curves, and reducing a roast chicken to a wishbone and a few leftovers. My mother and a lobster? Not much left for stock. Then there are people who really want their food in cubes, slices, or at least, cakes. My husband, for example, always wants to order a crab cake when we take out-of town friends to the bay for blue crabs and beer. He has no love for the gestalt of crab-eating. A non-nibbler, my husband. But a really hunky one.

We enjoyed our feast with cold, crisp Tsingtao beer, a wonderfully dry Grüner Veltliner, which was new to me, and pineapple juice with seltzer for the under-10 set. Happy New Year, indeed.

Disclosure: I will receive a copy of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook in conjunction with participating in Diana Kuan’s virtual potluck. All opinions expressed are my own.

Dreamy, Creamy Lemon Bars


There is a certain category of items for which it is better to cultivate friend-owners of these things than to own them yourself: vacation homes, designer cocktail dresses, boats, power tools bigger than a breadbox. To this list, I’d like to add Meyer lemon trees. Meyer lemons are exotic and pricy in Mid-Atlantic grocery stores, so receiving a generous care package full of them from a friend in the Southwest is a luxurious treat. To the owners, the prolific trees are a happy burden, requiring juicing and shipping and canning and baking. You can have too much of a good, tart-but-not-too-tart, floral, zesty thing. But friends of owners, we just beg and borrow.

As the Mid-Atlantic recipient of the aforementioned care package, I set about juicing and baking my gift lemons right away. If you get your hands on some Meyer lemons this year, consider these magically delicious lemon bars. More like a key lime pie than the sometimes-gelatinous standard variety, we found them positively dreamy.

Dreamy Creamy Lemon Bars
Makes 15-20 bars, depending on how generously you cut them.
Adapted from Joe’s recipe at Culinary in the Desert and the recipe on the condensed milk label

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus extra for the tops
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
3/4 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice*
2 tablespoons fresh grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350. Line a 9″ square baking pan with parchment paper and spray with nonstick spray.

Cream butter, confectioner’s sugar and salt together until light. Gently beat in the flour, mixing only until combined. Pat the mixture into the prepared pan and prick all over with a fork. Bake until golden at the edges, about 15 minutes.

While the crust layer bakes, beat together the eggs, yolks, condensed milk, lemon juice and lemon zest. Pour mixture onto hot crust and return to the oven, baking until just set in the center, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before dusting generously with confectioner’s sugar and cutting into bars.

*If you don’t have Meyer lemons, you can sub regular lemons plus one orange for a reasonable approximation.

Ginger Grapefruit Jam, and a Digression.

My Uncle Bob always sends my family a generous box of Indian River citrus at Christmastime. I immediately scarf down the fist sized navel oranges, and share the mandarins only with people I really like. The kids and I casually munch through the cara caras, the clementines, and the tangerines, which may or may not find their way into the toes of stockings Christmas eve. Santa, by way of Uncle Bob. But the grapefruits? They languish. One or two of them get tossed into a salad with mustard vinaigrette and cubed avocado. I usually eat one, halved and painstakingly sectioned, for breakfast, before deciding that they are too much work to face before caffeine. And then it is February, and they aren’t looking so hot.

So grapefruit jam. I was going to make grapefruit marmalade, but Marisa McClellan, of the gloriously aspirational Food in Jars blog, convinced me to go the jam route because I wasn’t sure whether the grapefruit skins had been sprayed with pesticides or waxed, and also because my husband doesn’t like marmalade. She was very firm on this second point.

I began by suprêming 4 grapefruits. Supreming is one of the fussier kitchen chores out there, but once you get into a rhythm, it can be quite soothing, like kneading dough or chopping lots and lots of onions. Take a grapefruit, slice about a quarter inch off the top and bottom, enough to get down to through the pith to the flesh. Then set the grapefruit down on a cutting board, and with a curving cut from the top down, take the peel and pith off the sides in strips. You will be left with a naked grapefruit.

Next, holding the denuded fruit over a bowl in your non-dominant hand, slide a knife right next to one of the segment membranes, then again next to the membrane on the other side of the segment, which should release the segment into the bowl. Cut down on the opposite side of them membrane to release it from the next segment, and push it aside, like turning the page of a book. Slice alongside the next membrane to release the second segment, and repeat. Times 4 grapefruits. Hopefully you put on some music when you started.

Once this is done, you’ve done the hard work of making the jam. You’ll want to pick out the pits as you come across them (mine weren’t too seedy) but otherwise, it is just fruit, sugar, flavorings, 220 degrees. I just poured mine into a jar to keep in the fridge, where it will keep for a month or two, if it isn’t spread on English muffins and dolloped on top of goat cheese crostini.

While I was cooking the jam I started a teeny little fire by letting the end of the dishtowel in which I wrapped my flavorings get too close to the flame. I put it right out, but a tidal wave of a memory flooded over me as I did so: my friend Thalia, sitting at my kitchen counter, admonishing me for leaving dishtowels too close to the burners. Thalia was a friend and mentor, professionally. We shared a book club and worked down the hall from each other at my old law firm. We had many things in common, among them a life changing cancer diagnosis over the same weekend in February of 2008. But I recovered, eventually, and Thalia didn’t. She died in January of 2009.

So I stood over the stove, scorched towel now sensibly tucked away, with my mind cranking far faster than my wrist was stirring. I really don’t like the current language that we use to talk about people who have had cancer. Survivors. Heros. Role Models. The words are nice, and positive, and well-meaning, but what if you aren’t a survivor? Did you not try hard enough?

My experience with fighting cancer was very passive. I showed up. The surgeries, the medicines, the radiation all made me feel like crap, but it didn’t take heroic strength to get through it. I just checked out of my day to day life. So when people say that I’m a hero when learning about my multiple rounds of cancer combat, my thoughts go to Thalia. I don’t know if she’s a hero either. The facts are just that we both showed up, and my treatments worked, and hers didn’t.

That’s what I was thinking about while I stirred my bubbling jam. Which is delicious.

Ginger Grapefruit Jam
adapted from Marisa McClellan
Makes a pretty jarful….1 ½ pints?

4 large grapefruits, red or yellow
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 half-inch slice of fresh ginger

Supreme the grapefruits over a large bowl to catch the juice and segments together. As pits appear, fish them out and set them aside. You should have roughly 3 cups of membrane-free grapefruit and juice when you are done.

Transfer the fruit and juice to a heavy-bottomed saucepan (hey! Who you callin’ heavy bottomed?) and add the sugar and salt. Take the pits you carefully collected, and the slice of ginger, and bundle them in a piece of cheesecloth or a loose-weave dishtowel and nestle among the grapefruit*

Bring the jam up to boil, stirring occasionally, and stick in a candy thermometer. Continue to cook at a steady boil until the thermometer reads 220 degrees.

Transfer to a clean glass jar and cool on the countertop. Refrigerate for up to 2 months.

*Or toss the pits, and chuck the ginger in to the simmering jam, then fish it out again. However, if you do this, consider bringing the jam up to 225 or higher, since the pits won’t be giving up their copious pectin and the jam might not gel as firmly. Cooking it to a higher temp with evaporate more water, hedging your bets.

Zen Pie.

I’m rethinking pie.

I did not grow up in a pie family. Yes, there were pies, but they weren’t presented with anticipation, or reverence. There was no pie ritual. And the crust? Wasn’t great. Love you mom! I grew up a cake lover, a cookie girl, but pie? Not so much.

I remember the first really delicious piecrust I ever tasted. It was a bakery sample at a small market in Ann Arbor…..popping it mindlessly in my mouth, it stopped me in my tracks, literally. This was pie! This was the flaky delight about which people reminisced, the sweet that brought them together around Gran’s table.

And thus began my quest to master crust.

Over the years, I’ve tried any number of crusts…..all butter, crisco, lard. I’ve used pastry cutters, forks, food processors, hands. I’ve made dry crusts, wet crusts, vodka crusts. And lots and lots of good crusts, but always, it is a project. I fear the roll-out. I fuss and tweak and freeze and bake and share. But I’ve never loved the process.

All that may have changed yesterday, when I had the privilege of learning from a pie master, nationally-recognized pie priestess Kate Mcdermott. Welcoming us into a home kitchen in Bethesda, she reminded us that it’s just pie.

I have a pie-crush on Kate. She plied us with pear pie, made from pears hand carried from her neighbor’s tree in Washington State. She walked us through the basics, without dogma, and left room for us to tell our pie stories. Kate injects her warmth and kindness into her classes. Four hours later, I left with a gorgeous jewel of a cranberry pie, and a new friend.


Can you teach intuition? It sounds like an oxymoron, but that is how Kate shared the gospel of pie. She encouraged us to feel everything, to listen and pat and touch in order to build a sense of when the crust is right. And that’s the paradigm shift that happened in my own head. After years of trying to get pie down to a science, with carefully weighted aliquots of flour and precise mixing without letting my thoughts stray from the dreaded gluten strand formation, I’m now going to make pie with a couple scoops of flour. I’ll cut in the fats while thinking of sharing the pie, and who might get to eat some. And I’ll take care not to overwork it, but I’ll check the dough….not the book…..to know when it is right. And if I can recreate yesterday’s pie, what a crust it will be! So crisp, so flaky, so gorgeously burnished golden. Is it weird to be excited about pie? I can’t wait to make more pie.

I’m going to put Kate’s recipe up here, with her permission. But here’s the thing….you need to find a pie Yoda to show you how to make pie crust. To teach the intuition. You need Kate. Or your grandmother. Or me! Come make pie with me. Or wait until Kate is back in town and take her class. Or both.

KATE’S PIE CRUST
For a Double Crust Pie
2 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached White Flour (red bag)
8 tablespoons of leaf lard, cut into various small pieces pea to walnut size
8 tablespoons of Irish butter, cut into various small pieces pea to walnut size 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6-8 Tablespoons of ice water (This is an average for water, I have used between 3-15 T at times!)
Procedure
Combine all ingredients but the ice water in a large bowl.
With clean hands, blend the mixture together until it looks like coarse meal with some lumps in it. The lumps make flakey pies.
Sprinkle ice water over mixture and stir lightly with a fork.
Squeeze a handful of dough together. Mix in a bit more water if it doesnʼt keep together.
Divide the dough in half and make two chubby disks about 5 inches across.
Wrap the disks separately in plastic wrap and chill for about an hour.
Take out one disk and put it on a well floured board.
Sprinkle some flour onto the top of the disk. Thump the disk with your rolling pin several times.
Turn it over and thump the other side.
Sprinkle more flour onto the top of the crust if needed to keep the pin from sticking and roll the crust out from the center in all directions.
When it is an inch or so larger than your pie pan, fold the dough over the top of the pin and lay it in the pie pan carefully.
Donʼt worry if the crust needs to be patched together; just paint a little water where it needs to be patched and “glue” on the patch piece.
Put the filling in the pie and repeat the process with the other disk.
Make pie, Be happy!
Copyright © 2009 Kate McDermott www.artofthepie.com

Haunted.

The last few months have been tough on families near me. Unexpected and tragically premature death. Adultery and remorseless betrayal. Slow wasting of mutual love. And just last week, violence of the sort that I thought lived only in the black-and-white minds of Hollywood screenwriters.

My family sits strong and intact amidst all of this drama. Whether Peter and I got lucky in our choices or just haven’t yet hit a chassis-wrenching speed bump, I don’t know. I do know that I want to nurture my family, hug my kids, and occasionally encircle the four of us in a cozy curtain to be just peaceful. My best tool for the job has always been a family dinner. I don’t presume to say that all of the hurt and crap that has befallen my friends could have been avoided by sitting down to eat together…just the opposite. In most of these cases, I never saw the hurt and crap coming, and I don’t believe they did, either. So in the face of that lack of foresight, dinner is all I’ve got. Dinner and hugs.

Ladies who lunch. And caponata.

In this particular chapter of my life, my primary job is to take care of 2 young-ish kids, and run the life of our busy family. A lot of people manage to do this while also holding down a full time job, or even having a career, but for this particular chapter, Peter and I have agreed that the lifestyle afforded by this old-school division of labor along frighteningly antiquated gender lines is working for all four of us. We’re able to absorb more of the hip-checks life sends our way by having a clear understanding about who is responsible for what (Sick kid on the first day back after a long weekend? I own it. Surprise on April 15th? That’s on Peter.) I overthink this stay-at-home-mom bit; it took me years before I stopped feeling guilty. I’m pretty much there, now…appreciating the hard work I do to keep our family’s motor running even if society in generally doesn’t really.

Plus, I get to have lunch with my friends a lot.

Not so much; even with kids in school, it is hard to make calendars line up. But once or twice a month, I get to take a little restorative time with similarly situated friends and just be. Its nice.

Last week, I was the host of such a lunch. And since we are still in these celebratory few weeks at the beginning of the school year, I decided it would be fun to crack out the china and silver and try to put all of my mother’s/grandmother’s/great-grandmother’s rules for entertaining into action. Oh….and since I don’t have the staff that they did (snort!) I went with one of my spiritual mother’s rule: Ina Garten always says to just make one thing when you entertain, and buy the rest.

Ladies lunch, indeed.

Sicilian Caponata
Makes about 1 quart

Caponata is a wonderful thing to have on hand. I served it almost as a relish, with cheese and charcuterie and bread, but I also love it spooned an a piece of grilled fish or tossed with pasta for a quick weeknight meal. This recipe makes plenty, assuming you can keep yourself from spooning directly from the serving bowl into your mouth. It has a wonderfully addictive quality, which is nice in an eggplant dish. Also. I’ve reduced the olive oil to what I believe is the minimum level…my “starting point” recipe called for 1 1/2 cups for a similar quantity of eggplant. You can cut back more if you must, but you will sacrifice some of the silky texture of the eggplant.

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
6 ribs celery, trimmed and sliced
1/2 cup chopped green olives
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons white sugar
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup fresh flat leaf parsley

Toss the eggplant with the salt and set aside in a colander to drain for 30 minutes or up to a few hours. After the eggplant drains, rinse it well and squeeze dry, wringing out the water with your hands.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add half of the eggplant, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Add two more tablespoons oil to the pan and repeat with remaining eggplant.

In a separate saute pan (or, after you finish frying the eggplant, if you hate doing dishes) heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Add the celery and continue to cook until onions are deep golden and celery is tender. Add the olives, raisins, sugar, vinegar, and tomatoes and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Stir in the eggplant and simmer together for about 5 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Stir in parsley. Serve immediately if you must, or cool and then chill for up to a week, allowing everything to meld and pickle slightly, for an optimal caponata moment.

Oh no she didn’t!

Guys, I made homemade Velveeta.

Am I ok?

My husband loves (loves!) all melty processed cheese products. Apparently as a kid, his mom would melt Velveeta on raisin buns as a quick dinner, creating, to his 12-year-old brain, the height of gourmet cuisine. Peter loves the V melted into boxed mac and cheese, and on a grilled cheese, and, well, who am I kidding, we all love it melted with a can of chili tomatoes as a chip dip. Mmm. Rotel.

But when I take a look at the ingredient list: MILK, WATER, MILKFAT, WHEY, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, ALGINATE, SODIUM CITRATE, APOCAROTENAL (COLOR), ANNATTO (COLOR), ENZYMES, CHEESE CULTURE…..it is a turn off. Also, soft cheese shouldn’t be shelf stable.

So when I read about a method for making your own Velveeta, I knew that I was in luck. I love America’s Test Kitchen and I know them to be very protective of their recipes, so I’ll wait here while you go and read about this magically simple process.

Done? Seriously, one quick trip down the baking aisle to pick up gelatin and dry milk powder (I actually used the easy-to-find nonfat, rather than the suggested whole milk, with no ill effects) and you, too, can make a brick of Velveeta. It took me and the 7 year old under 15 minutes to get it in the fridge.

Is that not a thing of beauty? Sigh.

My homemade Velveeta has been sitting, tightly wrapped, in my cheese drawer for a couple of days, waiting to make its debut. I had a vision: ooey, gooey, mac and cheese. Without alginate.

My friends, this is not quick kid’s fare before the sitter arrives. This is real-deal, amaze-your-friends, bring-it-to-a-ski-weekend-and-generate-marriage-proposals mac and cheese. Keep it in mind. And one last thing: reasonable people can disagree on the relative merits of crumb topping on macaroni and cheese. My family finds it distracting, but if you love it, just sprinkle the top with buttered crumbs before you bake it.


Spankin’ Mac and Cheese
Serves 6-8

1 pound macaroni or other short tube-ish pasta
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon hot sauce
8 ounces grated cheddar cheese
8 ounces American cheese or Velveeta, homemade or otherwise obtained, cubed

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to boil, and cook macaroni according to package directions. Drain well and return to the pot, off the heat.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and stir constantly until just beginning to brown, 2-3 minutes. Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly. Once the milk has been incorporated, switch to a spoon and stir occasionally until the sauce comes to a simmer and thickens. Reduce heat to simmer, and add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and hot sauce. Stir in the cheeses, one handful at a time, until all of the cheese has melted in and the sauce is smooth.

Spray a deep 9×13 baking dish with nonstick spray. Pour all of the sauce over the cooked macaroni, and stir gently to coat. The mixture will be very soupy at this point. Pour into the prepared baking dish, place the baking dish on a cookie sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, until bubbling and lightly browned in spots.

Midweek Minestrone

Wait….was that a chill I felt in the air? A freshening of the breeze? The scuttle of fallen leaves? It is here, people! Fall! The best season of the year.

Along with the fresh air, blowing out summer’s rank humidity, comes a fresh school year. A new schedule for us: homework, piano practice, swimming class (times two, one Tuesday and one Thursday) and a return to seated homecooked meals after a summer of sandwiches and pretzels by the pool.

At times like these, I’m much more likely to reach for a comforting family favorite, leaving the experiments for less-hectic days. Midweek Minestrone is a warm meal-in-a-bowl, crammed with vegetables and protein, garlicky and a little spicy from the sausage, just waiting for a chunk of crusty bread to dunk on in. It comes together in a low maintenance steps, with lots of time between them for helping with math or admiring an acorn collection. It improves with a day or 3 in the fridge. Mmmm….soup is good food.


Midweek Minestrone
Serves 4-6

3-4 links Italian sausage-hot or sweet-casings removed
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 cups (1 large or 2 medium) chopped zucchini
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with Italian seasonings (or use plain, and add some oregano, maybe a little fennel)
3 cups chicken stock
1 14-ounce can white beans
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
grated parmesan cheese, for serving

Crumble the sausage into a large dutch oven, over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, brown the sausage, then transfer to a paper towel lined plate to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat (if you are using a lower fat sausage, you may actually need to add a splash of olive oil) and add the chopped onion to the pan. Cook down the onion for 10-15 minutes, until starting to caramelize. Add the zucchini, garlic and salt, and cook until zucchini has given up some of its liquid. Add tomatoes, stock and reserved sausage, bring to a boil, and reduce heat. Simmer for 10-20 minutes, until zucchini is very tender. Add beans and vinegar, warm through, and taste for seasoning; balance flavors with salt and black pepper. Serve piping hot with parmesan cheese on top.