Saturday, January 12, 2008

Comfort Food: Meatballs, Sausages, and Spinach Soup

When it's cold, I want to eat something substantial. Tramping around in the snow all day, when we get back to the condo, we're cold and very, very hungry. With a fresh baguette or a bowl of steaming pasta, the Meatballs, Sausages, and Spinach soup is really satisfying. Add in a glass of Merlot or Pinot and it's all good.

1 ½ lbs. extra lean ground beef 7%
2 sweet Italian sausages
3 cloves garlic, peeled--2 finely chopped, 1 roughly chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled--½ onion cut into thin rings; ½ finely chopped
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano
1 bunch spinach, washed
4 cups homemade chicken stock
Sea salt
Black pepper

In a bowl, combine the lean ground beef, finely chopped garlic, ½ an onion, and the Parmesan. Using your hands, mix well and form 48 medium-sized meatballs. Sauté the onion rings and roughly chopped garlic in olive oil on a medium-high flame until lightly browned; remove to a plate. Return the pan to the stove and sauté the meatballs with 1 teaspoon olive oil. When they’re browned on all sides, remove and drain. Do in batches.

Cut the sausages into ¼” rounds and sauté until brown. Remove and drain. Pour off the excess oil and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Heat again and add the spinach. Turn frequently until the spinach wilts, then add the onions, meatballs, and sausages. Add the chicken stock and simmer for 30 minutes.

To eat as a soup, serve hot, with grated Parmesan on the side. To have with pasta, cook 1 pound of spaghetti and add to the meatballs and sausage. Serve with grated Parmesan

Serves 8. Preparation Time: 30 minutes. Cooking Time: 60 minutes.

Comfort Food: Sausages and Chicken Wings with Shitake Mushrooms

Every winter we go to the Sundance Resort in Utah where my wife runs a feature film program at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. She stays for most of the month but I go back to LA after a long weekend, then fly back four days later to go to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

When we're at the resort, my sons go skiing. I tried it a couple of times and realized it just isn't my thing. I wish I had my sons' athleticism. I don't. But I'm completely happy because Sundance is the perfect setting to cook. The condo has a simple kitchen set-up. No oven and only a 2-burner stove top, but outside the snow covered mountain is postcard perfect and inside it's nice and warm.

I do a lot of cooking at the resort, but I'm not cooking for the time we're here. I'm cooking and then freezing the food so we can have home-cooked meals when we're at the Festival, where watching 3-4 films a day means there's no time to cook. If you're lucky there's the occasional party where you can grab a mini-crab cake or some cheese and crackers.

I wanted to make comfort food. Nourishing, warm dishes that would revive us after a very long day.

Before we came up to the resort, we stopped at Macey's, one of the local supermarkets, and picked up basics: 2 Gold'n Plump organic chickens, a couple of pounds of extra lean ground beef, a package of Italian sweet sausages, and a selection of fresh vegetables.

Since all the dishes had to be able to survive freezing and reheating, everything would have a sauce or be in a soup, that would protect against freezer burn and drying out. That meant the first thing I needed to do was to make chicken stock.

Cutting up the 2 chickens, I had the carcasses and wing tips for the stock. Simmered on a low boil with 16 cups of water for 1 hour, then strained to remove the bones, I had 8 cups of stock. I pulled 1 cup of meat off the bones, perfect for chicken soup. Because I needed a lot of stock, I used the now-picked-clean bones for a 2nd boil by covering the bones with water and simmering for 30 minutes. Straining out the bones gave me an additional 2 cups of stock. If possible, refrigerate the stock overnight so the fat can be removed.

wings, washed, cut into pieces, the tips used for stock
2 Italian sweet sausages, cut into ¼” rounds
½ bunch spinach, washed, roughly chopped
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, fresh, or dried, soaked for 2 hours in hot water, stems removed
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup shiitake mushroom soaking water
2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

On a medium flame, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil, season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Saute the chicken wings until brown on all sides. Remove and sauté the sausage rounds until brown, drain and remove. Pour off the excess oil.

Add the 2nd tablespoon of olive oil and sauté the shiiake mushrooms and garlic until lightly browned. Deglaze the pan with the 2 stocks, add the spinach, then put back the wings and sausages. Simmer for 30 minutes lightly covered with a sheet of tin foil.

Serve in a bowl with soup spoons and lots of napkins because this is finger-eating food. Or, to make a more substantial entree, add pasta or rice to the bowl.

Serves 2-4. Preparation Time: 20 minutes. Cooking Time: 60 minutes.

For everything going into the freezer, I use an airtight container, like the ones made by Ziploc, and make sure that the liquid covers the meat and vegetables to avoid freezer burn.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Shrimps on Fire

I started teaching my sons how to cook when they were barely tall enough to reach the kitchen counter. The first thing anyone needs to learn is good knife skills. I still remember his mom looking in horror when she walked into the kitchen to find me showing 5 year old Frank how to use a 10" chef's knife to chop Italian parsley. No blood was spilled that day, but the quality of my parenting was a topic of discussion for many months afterwards.

When Frank went away to UC, Santa Cruz, I put together a cookbook with recipes I thought would be quick, easy, and economical. Periodically I'd get calls from him for cooking tips, like the time he was in Costco and he wanted to know what he could do with frozen red snapper, since it was on sale for $1.35/lb.

What's really fun is when the student becomes the teacher.

On one of his trips home, Frank taught us how to make shrimps wrapped in bacon, an appetizer he used to make for parties. Hors d'oeuvres are my favorite part of the meal. Nothing is better than little bite sized taste treats. For a vision of heaven, check out Mark Bittman's episode of his Best Recipes in the World about tapas in Barcelona.

Frank's bacon wrapped shrimp is on my 10 Best Appetizers list. Since I can't resist tweaking any recipe, I added a bit more flavor by coating the shrimps in a seasoned olive oil marinade, otherwise, the recipe is his.

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes


1 pound shrimps (25-35 count/lb.), washed, shelled, deveined
10-12 strips of bacon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped

Heat the olive oil in a pan and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté the finely chopped parsley, garlic, and shallot in the olive oil until lightly browned. Let cool.
Spoon the seasoned olive oil over the shrimp. Toss well and let sit for 30 minutes.

Get organized so you can work assembly-line.

Cut the strips of bacon into 3 equal pieces. Toss the shrimp again, then take one shrimp and lay it on the piece of bacon, rolling the bacon around the shrimp. Take a toothpick and push it through the bacon-shrimp-bacon to hold it together. Set aside and do the rest.

Using tongs, put the shrimp on a hot grill and close the hood. If you're using an oven, set it at 450 degrees and put the shrimp on a wire rack over a cookie sheet.

Turn every 2-3 minutes so they cook evenly and don't burn, about 10 minutes. Serve on a platter with napkins.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Persimmons, Pomegranate Seeds, and Arugula: A Salad of Unusual Qualities

Sometimes lettuce is just not good enough. With its peppery spiciness, arugula has a refreshing bite. In Southern California, even though it gets cold in the Winter, arugula thrives in the year-round sunshine, so we're able to buy fat bunches any time of the year for $1.00/bunch.

Persimmons and pomegranates are more seasonal. Suzanne Goin created a complex salad with all these ingredients.

I used her recipe as a starting point, choosing to simplify the ingredients and directions.

The combination of tastes is near perfect: peppery arugula, sweet persimmon, tart pomegranate seeds, and crunchy hazelnuts, all held together by the emulsion of olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar.

Arugula Salad with Persimmons & Pomegranate Seeds

Yield: serves 4

Time: 10 minutes


1 bunch arugula, washed, stems trimmed
2 persimmons, washed, peeled, thin sliced
1/4 pomegranate, washed, peeled, to yield 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
1 tablespoon hazelnuts, roasted, peeled, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, slowly reduced to 1 tablespoon


Tear the arugula leaves off the stem and put into a salad bowl. Add the sliced persimmons and pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Crush the hazelnuts with the flat of a chefs knife and sprinkle them on the salad.

Toss and season to taste with freshly ground black pepper.

Brussels Sprouts the Easy Way

There are some vegetables I remember my mother cooking that I didn't like. Beets and Brussels sprouts were high on my list of vegetables-to-avoid. And all of them were served after they'd been boiled until they were soggy.

Years ago I learned to oven roast whatever my mother boiled. Most importantly I learned that Brussels sprouts, either whole, if they're small, or quartered when they're on the large size, caramelize beautifully when oven roasted, seasoned only with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Their flavor is even better when they're available in the local farmers' market.

A mainstay of our dinner parties, roasted Brussels sprouts go with just about any meat: chicken, turkey, duck, steak, roast, or pork loin.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30-45 minutes


1 pound Brussels sprouts, washed, stems trimmed off
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Toss the Brussels sprouts with the olive oil and seasoning, then put them into a roasting pan with enough room so they don't sit on top of each other. Roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes, turning them every 5-10 minutes.

They'll come out of the oven so warm and sweet, they'll get eaten before they arrive at the table.

Chicken and Dumplings with Sweet Potato Stuffing

Chicken and dumplings is the classic comfort-food entree, no question about it. Stuffing the dumplings with a savory sweet potato puree takes them to another flavor level. Adding that little touch, makes the dish perfect for a dinner party.

Chicken and Dumplings with Sweet Potato Stuffing

Yield: 4-6

Time: 2 1/2 hours


1 medium sized sweet potato or yam, washed, wrapped in tin foil
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
8 cloves, garlic, peeled, finely chopped
2 4-pound chickens, washed
1 yellow onion, peeled, roughly chopped
1 ear of corn, the kernels removed
3 large carrots, peeled, cut into thick rounds
1/2 pounds mushrooms, washed, sliced thin
4 cups chicken stock, homemade
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup cream or half-and-half
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper


Bake the sweet potato in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour (turning it over after the 1st 30 minutes) until soft. Remove from the tin foil and peel off the skin and mash with a fork. (For a chef's snack, try the skin with a little sea salt. Yummy.) Saute the finely chopped shallots and 2 of the garlic cloves in olive oil until lightly browned, then add to the sweet potato puree and put aside.

Cut apart the chicken, separating the legs, thighs, and wing parts (cut apart the three wing bones, keeping the 2 and using the wing tip for stock). Debone the breasts and remove the skin. Put the meat into a bowl and season with 1/4 cup olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper.

To make the stock, put the carcass, wing tips, and breast skin into a large pot with 1/2 gallon of water and simmer on a medium flame for 1 hour. The water should have reduced by half. Strain out the bones and put the stock aside.

Cutting apart the chicken and making the stock the night before has a couple of advantages. You don't have to deal with it on the day you're cooking the meal, the meat will tenderize in the seasoned olive oil, and you'll be able to strip off the fat that will solidify on top of the stock. These are all good things.

In a large skillet or dutch oven, brown the wings, legs, and thighs in olive oil on a medium flame, turning them frequently so they don't burn. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Pour off the fat and discard. Measure 1 tablespoon of olive oil and saute the onions, garlic, corn, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Add the wings, legs, thighs and chicken stock. Cover with a lid or piece of tin foil and simmer for 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender.

Add enough stock or water to cover the chicken and vegetables.

Make the dumplings by first mixing together the flour and baking powder. Using a fork, crumble the butter into the flour, then season with a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir the flour mixture and slowly add the cream until the texture is like thick porridge.

The dumplings will take 30 minutes to cook, so save this last step until your guests have arrived and they're enjoying drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Ask someone to keep you company or help with making the dumplings. They're fun to make but a bit tedious.

One last thing before you start making the dumplings. This is the moment when you can decide if you want to include the breast meat or save it for another dish (like grilled chicken paillard or breaded chicken breasts). If you want to have both white and dark meat in the dish, then cut the breasts into 1" cubes and lightly saute them in a olive oil for 2 minutes on each side, then add them to skillet.

Put the flame onto medium and start fashioning the dumplings. Using 2 large metal spoons, scoop up a quarter-sized amount of the dumpling mixture in one of the spoons. With the other, take a dime-sized amount of the sweet potato puree and spread that over the dumpling mixture, then scoop up another quarter-sized portion of the dumpling mixture and spread it on top of the other spoon so the sweet potato puree is completely hidden.

Describing how to make the stuffed dumplings makes it sound difficult, but it's very simple. You'll quickly get the hang of it.

There should be enough liquid in the pot to reach 1/2" above the meat and vegetables, because the dumplings need liquid to stay moist. Once the dumpling has been formed in the one spoon, use the other spoon to gently slide it off into the pot so it rests on top of the chicken and vegetables.

As you make the dumplings, set them into the pot, one next to the other--no overlapping--until the top of the pan is completely covered with dumplings. It's best if there's a little space between dumpling so they have room to expand.

Cover the pot and come back in 30 minutes. Use a large soup plate to serve the chicken with a sampling of vegetables and a dumpling.

Caipirinhas, the New Mojito

The national drink of Brazil, the caipirinha, has 4 ingredients: cachaça, sugar, limes, and ice. Simple, delicious, and strong. Cachaça is harsher than rum but more flavorful than vodka.

Off and on for three years our older son, Frank, lived in Brazil. We visited him in Rio where he introduced us to the pleasures of sitting on the Leblon beach, enjoying the incredible view and feasting on "appetizers" sold by vendors who walk up and down the beach.

The variety of delicious treats carried by vendors is amazing. Grilled chicken, saladinhos ("little salty snacks"), cheeses melted on a small brazier, shrimp on skewers, ice cold agua de coco from a freshly opened coconut, and a variety of fruit beyond belief. After you've eaten enough or want a break from watching the parade of beautifully tanned and under-dressed Cariocas (what the natives of Rio are called), a short walk to any of the restaurants and bars that line the beach and a caipirinha is waiting for you.

Because Brazil has such a bounty of tropical fruits, it was only a matter of time before the caipirinha enjoyed the addition of other flavors. Frank had learned to make variations. Going to a nearby farmers' market, we picked out different fruit to add to the basic ingredients.

Back at his apartment we spent the afternoon working our way through many combinations. What we liked best was adding kiwi fruit and pomegranate seeds, then we experimented with the proportions.

When it was time to leave Rio, we packed our suitcase with as many bottles of cachaça as we could legally bring home.

2 ounces cachaça
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
1/2 lime, cut into 8 pieces, mashed in a mortar and pestle
1/2 kiwi, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon pomegranate seeds
ice, cubed or crushed

Pour the cachaça in a 12 ounce glass, add the sugar and stir well. Pour in the lime, kiwi, and pomegranate seeds. Mix and fill the glass with crushed ice. Serve with an espresso spoon so you can eat the kiwi and pomegranate seeds while you sip your caipirinha.

Serves 1.

Smoky Leek Soup

It's January cold. The sky is overcast, a very heavy rain storm on the way. Of course in Southern California, a day like today is an 'event' and that means we can indulge in an East Coast afternoon, with the fireplace going and a comfort-food lunch.

The Sunday farmers' market had baby leeks, so it's going to be Smoky Leek Soup and a corned beef sandwich with coleslaw--leftovers from yesterday's visit to Nat 'n Al's in Beverly Hills.

To put a bit more flavor into the soup, add sauteed smoked bacon and lightly brown the garlic and leeks.

Smoky Leek Soup

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 40 minutes


1 bunch leeks, green stems and roots cut off and discarded
1 tablespoon finely chopped smoked bacon
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter (no salt)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
3 cups stock, duck or chicken
1/4 cup homemade croutons


Wash the trimmed leeks in a bowl of water, letting them soak for 5 minutes to get rid of any grit. Heat a saucepan on a medium-low flame. Sauté the bacon until lightly browned. Cut the leeks into thin rounds. Add the leeks, olive oil, butter, and and garlic to the bacon.

Traditionally leeks are only supposed to be softened, but lightly browning them gets more sweetness into the soup and adds a layer of flavor.

Sauté for 10 minutes on a medium-low flame. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes.

Laddle the soup into 2 bowls and top with the croutons.

The Freshest, Coolest Salad You Can Make for Summer or Anytime

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