Category Archives: dinner

transition, through chowder

There’s been a change in the air these last few weeks…have you felt it? Just the slightest shift in temperature, a chill in the evenings that makes sleeping with windows wide open not only possible, but pleasant. The breeze is changing, carrying with it the scent of a backyard grill, the sound of fallen leaves skipping along pavement, a smattering of goosebumps across a forearm. Afternoon light has a new quality, a dreamy, golden hue that elicits memories of high school football games, apple picking, the feel of a scarf wound loosely about the neck.

Autumn begins officially today, but I’ve seen signs of her impending arrival for most of September. I won’t deny my excitement, for this time of year is truly my favorite, but I will miss the bounties of Summer. There’s been an urgency to our visits to Charlottesville’s City Market each Saturday for three weeks now. A pressure to gather up one last load of roma tomatoes to roast, to pick up a dozen freestone peaches knowing they’ll be absent until next July, to seek out a few more ears of fresh corn before being forced to rely on the kernels stashed away at the back of the freezer.

I bought our first butternut squash just last week. It stood out in our market basket, a dull cloud against the sunset of tomatoes, peaches, and eggplant. Once home we roasted it to sweet perfection before pureeing it with celery, onions and carrots into an earthy potage. The recipe is an Autumn staple, one that will grace our table many times in the next few months. We loved the soup that night as we always do, but still, I wasn’t quite ready for it.

What I wanted instead was a chowder we’d made the week before, one that took advantage of the last of Summer’s produce while introducing the initial tastes of Autumn. Those final few ears of sweet corn, the bell and jalepeño peppers, the first potatoes and carrots of Fall, a cream base with heat that hits from the belly out, all come together to create a soup that perfectly represents this time. The transition from one season to another, from tank tops and flip flops to light jackets and closed-toe flats, embodied in a chowder.

A chowder perfect for those of us on the fence, clinging to Summer while welcoming Fall.

I mentioned, way back at the end of August, that I’d found a new trick to releasing corn kernels from their cob. Well, here it is friend.  I introduce to you the bundt pan, a vessel so perfectly designed for handling fresh corn that I feel it should be marketed in that way.  Sure, it also makes a pretty cake, but really, lots of pans can do that. The central tube fits the end of an ear of corn quite perfectly, and as you cut the kernels from the cob they fall neatly into the pan. No more corn kernels all over the counter and floor. I am probably the last to discover this handy trick, but wow, was I excited when I did. My dogs, however, miss the sweet kernels falling from above.

Spicy Potato Corn Chowder

adapted from Gourmet, July 2008
serves 4 as a first course

Ingredients:

  • 3 ears corn, shucked
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 1.75 pounds red potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (3.5 cups)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, halved lengthwise, then sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 jalepeño peppers, minced (no seeds unless you want your soup really spicy)
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 2 California bay leaves
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups milk (1% or 2%)
  • 3 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Method

  1. Cut corn from each cob.
  2. Bring cobs, water, broth, potatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a large pot. Boil, covered, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard cobs.
  3. Meanwhile, cook onion, carrot, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is pale golden, about 10 minutes.
  4. Add bell pepper, jalepeño, corn, thyme, bay leaves, and one ladle of liquid from potato/corn pot. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes.
  5. Stir in potatoes with water/broth and cream and gently boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Reduce heat to low and stir in milk.  Be sure not to allow soup to boil after this point, as milk will curdle. Heat through, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Discard bay leaves and thyme sprigs.
  7. Use an immersion blender to pureé some of the vegetables, to thicken soup.  Be sure to leave some large chunks of potatoes, peppers, and corn. If you don’t have an immersion blender, ladle two scoops of soup into a regular blender and pureé, then add back to soup pot.
  8. Stir in scallions, white pepper, cayenne, and salt to taste, then serve.

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finally, a piece of NOLA

July.  What a busy month this has been.  I know I’ve said that a lot these last few months, remarked often about the quick passing of time and my inability to sit behind my computer to put words on this digital page of mine.  Are you tired of that yet?  I sure am.  So, rather than dwell on my mile-long ‘to do’ list I’ve decided to share with you one of my favorite places. A city that my mind escapes to when life gets hectic and all I want is a cool spot in a shady courtyard, an ice-laden cocktail in my hand and notes of jazz wafting on the breeze. Am I procrastinating? Maybe a little.  But “write a flippin’ post for Bella Eats!” is definitely on my list, so I AM accomplishing something…

It is difficult to explain the draw that Brian and I have to New Orleans.  It just…is. We feel it as soon as we step off the plane, a bubbling of emotion from deep within, a giddy excitement that manifests itself as raised hairs along goose-bumped arms. Neither of us have ever lived in the city, we have no family in the area, our first visit together occurred just seven years ago. Yet after that initial stay in the Big Easy we were hooked. Completely and totally.

NOLA is so much more than Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras and frozen drinks in phallic cups. The city has soul, and to find it one needs only to spend a few hours walking slowly down her cracked sidewalks. Underneath the peeling paint, the sagging balconies, the leaning cottages, and the rusty ironwork is a humble elegance steeped in history and perseverance. She keeps her chin up and dances to her own soundtrack; a mix composed of melancholy notes from a jazz clarinetist on Royal, the rumble and clang of a street car on Saint Charles, the clink of an oyster shell tossed on a pile behind a bar, a “what can I getcha, baby?” from the busy woman behind a restaurant counter.

Her natives are loyal, devoted to the place they’ve called home for most, if not all, of their lives. They are drawn to her magic, held hostage by an appeal that keeps them coming home even after high waters threatened to wash that possibility into the Gulf. Sit down at a table in any well-established restaurant and learn that your waiter has worked there for 40+ years. He loves his job and has been well taken care of for all that time, because that’s how they do things in the Big Easy. Filter in and out of shops and restaurants in the French Quarter and be thanked not only for visiting that particular address, but for visiting New Orleans. “Come back soon, y’hear? This city needs you.”

We do go back, as often as we can. With each visit we try to experience new places, new food, new music; but it is difficult to stray from those that have become favorites. It just wouldn’t be a weekend in NOLA without a black ham biscuit, beignets and cafe au lait at midnight, a muffaletta, blackened Louisiana drum, Fritzel’s, Doreen. Tell any lover of New Orleans that you’re planning a visit and watch their eyes light up as they rattle off their own list of places you must see, meals you must eat.  But most of all, they’ll be excited that you’re going to New Orleans, and that the city will have another set of fans to add to her list.

We last visited NOLA in May.  You might remember me mentioning our trip and making promises to share recipes inspired by the fabulous meals we had while there. Oh, and photographs…I promised those too. I also mentioned the stifling heat we experienced during our stay and my relief that we’d be spared from such temperatures in Virginia for another two-ish months.  Ha. If only I had knocked on wood after hitting ‘publish’ on that post…

The record-breaking temperatures have kept us from doing much cooking in our kitchen, as even the thought of turning on the stovetop raises a bead of sweat at my hairline. I’d just about given up on the idea of sharing red beans and rice with you anytime before October when I read this article on The Kitchn about slow-cooking in the summer. I know that it seems counter-intuitive to pull out the Crock Pot in the middle of a heat wave, but it actually makes quite a bit of sense.

For this recipe, which I adapted from a traditional stovetop variation, all of the preparation was completed in the morning before work when my house was cool and the setting sun wasn’t blaring through the west-facing kitchen window. The ingredients were tossed in the Crock Pot, I turned the heat to low and out the door we went.  When we arrived home that night the house smelled amazing and dinner was ready without either of us laboring over a hot stove.  We ladled up the beans, poured ourselves cold cocktails, and settled into our dark den. Not exactly a shady New Orleans courtyard, but a respite all the same.

These beans were really fantastic; smoked and earthy with just a hint of spice.  My ingredients are very close to Chef Prudhomme’s; it was really just the process and the color of the bell peppers that I altered. Also, Brian and I don’t have quite the tolerance for spicy heat that most native New Orleanians do, so I knocked that back a bit as well.

Red Beans + Rice with Andouille Smoked Sausage

recipe adapted from Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen

serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1 pound dried red kidney beans
  • water
  • 2 cups diced onion
  • 2 cups diced celery
  • 2 cups diced red bell pepper
  • 2 large smoked ham hocks, about 2.5 pounds total
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)
  • 1 pound andouille sausage links
  • salt to taste
  • Basic Cooked Rice (recipe below)

Method

  1. The night before, place the dried red beans in a large saucepan and cover with water 2-inches above the beans. Let soak overnight.
  2. The next morning, drain the red beans and rinse thoroughly.  Refill the saucepan with fresh water to cover the beans by 2-inches.  Bring to a brisk boil and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove the beans from the heat and drain.
  3. Place the boiled beans in a slow-cooker (crock pot) and add ten cups of water over top. Add everything but the andouille sausage, salt and Basic Cooked Rice to the pot and stir well.
  4. Set the slow-cooker to the ‘low’ setting and let cook for 6 to 7 hours, until the beans are tender and just starting to break apart. (I came home for a late lunch to check on the beans, and turned the slow-cooker to the ‘warm’ setting for the remaining 4 hours of my work day).
  5. Add the andouille sausage links (split in half or quarters, depending on the size of the links) to the slow-cooker and continue to cook for 1 additional hour.
  6. Salt to taste.
  7. Serve over Basic Cooked Rice.

***UPDATE***

Thank you to InternationalRoutier for bringing to my attention the fact that dried red kidney beans cooked in slow cookers have been known to cause food poisoning!  You can be protected from this possibility by soaking the dry beans for at least 5 hours, and then boiling the beans briskly for at least 10 minutes prior to adding them to the slow cooker.  I’ve modified my recipe above to reflect this change.

Basic Cooked Rice

from Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen

makes about 6 cups of rice

Ingredients

  • 2 cups uncooked rice (I used brown rice)
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 tbsp very finely chopped onions
  • 1 1/2 tbsp very finely chopped celery
  • 1 1/2 tbsp very finely chopped bell pepper (the recipe calls for green, I used red because I love them)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • a pinch each of white pepper, ground red pepper (cayenne), and black pepper

Method

  1. In a 5x9x2 1/2-inch standard loaf pan, combine all ingredients and mix well. Seal pan snugly with aluminum foil. Bake at 350º until rice is tender, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Serve immediately.*

* I made the rice the night before.  If you are planning to do the same, DO NOT use green bell peppers, as they tend to sour quickly. Reheat the rice in a skillet with a bit of melted butter.

We can’t even begin to imagine the affect that the explosion of the DeepWater Horizon oil drilling rig will have on the Gulf, the coast, the country, the world. The stories and images are devastating. If you are able and would like to help the recovery, I’ve provided links below to organizations that would appreciate your contribution.

Greater New Orleans Foundation

National Wildlife Federation

International Bird Rescue Research Center

it’s better this way

Last Monday I sat on a plane at Louis Armstrong International Airport, Brian’s hand in mine as we taxied down the runway and lifted off, on our way home to Charlottesville. Out the window I watched a city that I love dearly fall away, nostalgic and missing New Orleans already.

We’d arrived Friday morning to heat and humidity that we won’t (hopefully) see in Virginia for another two months. After checking bags at our hotel, changing into shorts and slathering on sunscreen we set out into the city with two friends who’d joined us for four days of exploring, absorbing, listening and, most importantly, eating. As the veteran visitors, Brian and I had laid out an agenda based on food – our nine meals were carefully scheduled and the rest of the trip was woven loosely around their locations.

There were muffalettas and seafood po-boys, chicken andouille gumbo and spicy jambalaya, raw oysters and bags of boiled crawfish, black ham biscuits and fluffy omelets served with fries, powdered beignets and pecan-laden pralines. We sipped Pimm’s Cups as we strolled the French Quarter, cooled off with a creamy Bourbon Milk Punch at Bourbon House, swirled ice in our vodka tonics while listening to set after set of incredible jazz. We walked and biked between those meals to help counter the indulgence of the weekend, oftentimes feeling that what we really, really needed was to find a shady spot to stretch out horizontally for a nice, long nap.

As New Orleans disappeared beneath a bank of hazy clouds last Monday I found myself thinking that we could live there, Brian and I, in a cute Creole cottage just downriver from the French Quarter. We’d paint our home in shades of blue and grey with a vibrant yellow, or maybe eggplant, accent around the windows and doors. There would be bikes leaned up against the side of the house, one with a basket, ready at a moment’s notice to be ridden into the Quarter for lunch or to the Crescent City Farmer’s Market for fresh, local seafood and produce. Our yard would be tiny, just big enough for a vegetable garden and a stone terrace with an umbrella-covered picnic table. We’d string lanterns from the trees and host crawfish boils on that terrace, invite guests who would wear jaunty hats and sip frosty cocktails as they unconsciously swayed to the sounds of Doreen’s clarinet wafting from the stereo.

It is a lovely dream, one that I could see becoming a reality one day if we could just find a way to get used to the stifling heat. And the cockroaches – complete terror only scratches the surface of the affect that those little buggers have on me. And the city’s status as the murder capital of the USA…  Minor details, since I already have the biggest obstacle solved – vegetables. Did you notice that my list of traditional NOLA fare does not include even a hint of green? While we happily consumed fried / buttered / sugared food for four full days, I believe that four days must be the limit. For as I dreamt about our little blue Creole cottage and crawfish boils and lanterns strung from trees and clinking glasses of frosty beverages, I managed to squeeze a giant bowl of homegrown greens onto the linen-covered table in the middle of that backyard terrace.

A vegetable garden would be an absolute necessity to our New Orleans lifestyle.

The next day, back at work in Charlottesville and fully submerged in reality, Brian and I met a friend for lunch at Feast. I ordered a mixed salad plate, and while I couldn’t stop talking about the wonderful food in New Orleans, my mind was distracted by how amazingly satisfying the plate full of veggies in front of me was. And on Saturday, at our own City Market, we filled our basket with all the green we could get our hands on – two heads of lettuce, two bunches of both kale and collards, two pounds of asparagus.

I plan to share some of our favorite New Orleans-inspired dishes here on Bella Eats in the next month or two (along with some photographs from our trip!), but just had to give our systems a break this last 10 days.  I’d originally thought that a full month of NOLA fare on this little blog could be fun, but have decided instead to spread those rich, indulgent dishes out, to balance them with recipes like this side of wilted spinach tossed with fresh peas, garlic and scallions.  It’s better this way, I promise.

Tangles of earthy spinach play well with the sweet peas in this dish. The mild flavors are complimented nicely by the subdued bite of sliced garlic and a generous handful of scallions.  Serve alongside a fillet of white fish dressed simply with lemon, sea salt and herbs for a healthy, feel-good-to-the-core meal.

Spinach with Peas and Scallions

adapted from The Naked Chef Takes Off by Jamie Oliver

serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter, divided
  • 1 bunch of scallions, dark and light green parts diced (about 1/4 cup)
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2 cups of fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4 large handfulls of spinach, tough stems removed
  • sea salt and pepper

Method

  1. Heat olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in deep skillet over medium heat. Add the scallions and sliced garlic, stirring to coat with oil and butter.  Let saute’ for 2-3 minutes, not letting the garlic brown.
  2. Add the peas, and saute’ for another 2-3 minutes, until the garlic starts to turn golden brown.  Add the wine, and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and allow to cook for another 2-3 minutes.  If using fresh peas, be sure to test one before adding the spinach to be sure that it is cooked.
  3. Add the spinach, stirring to coat with liquid.  Allow spinach to heat through and wilt, 2-3 more minutes.  Add last tbsp of butter and salt and pepper to taste.

to satisfy all cravings

My heels hit the pavement with a muffled thud that keeps time with the music streaming in my ear.  I’ve been fussing with the wire to my headphones, trying to rearrange the line moving down the inside of my shirt to the iPhone in my hand without losing my balance and accidentally stepping out in front of a car.  Frustrated, I finally pull the plugs from my ears and wrap the cord around my wrist, content to let my feet provide base to accompany the chirping birds’ melody as I finish my jog.

I’ve only recently started running again, pounding the pavement on my neighborhood streets as much for the fitness benefits as for the opportunity to get outside and absorb the beauty of my environment. Running and I don’t really get along (you can read a bit about that here, from the old Bella Eats) so my mileage is pretty light and my pace is fairly slow. I typically try to distract myself either with a talkative buddy or a good Pandora station on my iPod, but lately have found that my surroundings are distraction enough.

In the last few weeks I’ve witnessed the transition of dry, yellow lawns into luscious, chartreuse carpets speckled with sunny dandelions and dusty purple violets. I’ve waited patiently for the lilac bush at the top of one long, steadily-sloped hill to come to bloom and finally, just last week, was able to stop for a few deep inhales of oh-so-sweet perfume from its clumps of delicate blossoms. As my feet pad-pad-pad the concrete sidewalk I’ve found my head spinning in all directions to absorb freshly-mulched flower beds that first showcased crocuses in mid-March, revealed daffodils two weeks later and tulips two weeks after that. The ethereal quality of each April day is enough to entice me to lace up my shoes and walk out the door, always excited to see what’s changed in the few days since I last plodded around the neighborhood.

As I peak the last small hill before the intersection one block from my house I am hot and sweaty, my skin bright pink and glistening with tiny beads of moisture. I reach the corner and slow to a walk, raising my hands to the top of my head and taking in a few deep, slightly ragged breaths. The breeze picks up just then, sweeping through the branches overhead to send a cascade of browning cherry blossoms swirling towards the ground. This is the last of them, the white and pink flowers have been slowly pushed out by darkening green leaves over the last couple of weeks. I’ll miss the bright, cottony treetops, but now we have floppy dogwood blossoms and bright fuchsia azaleas to admire. And after that there will be wild sweet peas and multiflora rose, both lending the air surrounding Charlottesville with the sweetest scent you can imagine, making the deep, ragged breaths at the end of a run a bit more tolerable.

The sun is setting now, giving the golden evening light a hint of green as beams filter through the new growth on our backyard trees. I stretch on the back deck for a few minutes, sinking my hips deep into a lunge as the Spring breeze brushes over my still-damp skin, sending a little smattering of goosebumps up my cooling arms. It’s going to get chilly overnight, despite the mid-day temperature of 65-degrees.

This is so typical for Charlottesville this time of year – daily temperatures that swing from the 30’s to the 70’s and back in just 24 hours’ time.  It calls for a little planning in the morning, a layering of clothing to be sure you’re warm enough when you walk out the door but not too hot when you step out for lunch.  It means watching the forecast carefully to be sure that those plants that spent the Winter indoors and “just want a little sunshine!” on the back deck are brought in before the air turns too cool. It also means preparing meals that satisfy a plethora of cravings, from light and bright to comforting and warm.

As I finish my stretching and head inside my nose absorbs the scent of chicken braising in a bath of milk, lemon, sage and cinnamon.  There is soup too, a zippy puree of Winter-Spring veggies.  I am glad that I thought to start dinner prior to my run, because although standing in a hot kitchen prepping dinner sounds miserable right now, in thirty minutes the cool air slipping through our windows will have me wanting a warm and comforting meal.  A warm and comforting meal that is, at the same time, light and bright with the promise of Spring.

This soup is perfect on these Spring days with nights that feel closer to Winter. The parsnips are strong, so if you’re looking for just a hint of the root I’d reduce their amount to 1/2 pound and up your potato count to 3.  Be sure to add the squeeze of lemon at the end, it really makes the asparagus shine.

Creamy Asparagus and Parsnip Soup

serves 4

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced to 1-inch chunks
  • about 3/4 pound parsnips, peeled and diced to 1-inch rounds
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed, chopped to 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4-5 cups chicken broth
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lemon

Method

  1. Melt butter in a large soup pot over medium-high heat.  Add the potatoes, parsnips, onion, garlic, and asparagus and stir to coat with butter.  Cover pot and let veggies sweat for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes and parsnips are slightly tender.
  2. Add white wine to pot and stir to deglaze bottom of pan if there are any bits of veggie stuck.  Add the chicken broth, enough to just cover all of the vegetables.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes and parsnips are fully tender, another 10 minutes or so.
  3. Using an immersion blender or a regular blender, puree the vegetables until you have a smooth, creamy consistency devoid of any chunks.  Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, to taste.

This chicken is everything that everybody has raved about.  Moist and flavorful, it is wonderful on its own dressed simply with the sauce created from the braising liquid.

Braised Chicken in Milk

recipe from Jamie Oliver via Whitney in Chicago and The Kitchn

serves 4

Ingredients

  • 3-1/2 pound organic chicken
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 stick of butter
  • olive oil
  • cinnamon stick (mine was about 3 inches in length)
  • handful of fresh sage leaves, removed from stem
  • zest of 2 lemons
  • 10 cloves of garlic (I removed the skin)
  • 1 pint milk

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 375*.
  2. Rinse and thoroughly dry your chicken.
  3. Rub your chicken down with sea salt and black pepper, evenly and thoroughly.  Heat a large oven-proof pot on your stove top and melt the stick of butter and a glug of olive oil together.  Place the chicken in the pot, breast-side down, and fry until golden brown.  Turn bird to all sides to get even, golden color.  This should take about 10 minutes.
  4. Remove the bird from the pot and place on a plate.  Discard the remaining butter and oil.  Put the bird back in the pot (don’t mind all of the little brown bits at the bottom of the pot, they will add tremendous flavor to the final sauce) and add the rest of your ingredients.  Place the pot in the oven, covered, and cook chicken for 90 minutes.  Baste with the cooking juices whenever you remember (which I did 2 or 3 times).  If you think about it, remove the lid for the last 30 minutes of cooking, so that the skin will crisp up a bit.  If not, no biggie.
  5. To serve, pull all of the neat from the bones and divide amongst 4 plates.  Be sure to siphon up the juices in the pot including the curds, which I know look weird but add so much flavor to the sauce.  I put the sauce in a jelly jar and shook it really hard, to help incorporate those curds into the liquid so that they didn’t look so funny on my chicken.  Spoon the sauce over the pulled chicken and ENJOY!

Be sure to fish out all of the garlic cloves from the pot when the chicken is done.  Spread them over thick slices of chunky bread, and swoon!

on a whim

As Spring quickly approaches, I’m finding that the evening meal has become a very relaxed affair. With daylight extending itself to an hour that allows for chatting with a glass of wine on the back deck after work, thoughts of dinner don’t start to cross the mind until the sun dips behind the trees and the temperature drops to a point that requires either a move inside or the addition of a lightweight sweater. It is only then that we notice the clock (and our bellies!) telling us that it is past 7pm, and time to pull something together in the kitchen.

I haven’t been planning our meals very far in advance, something that is unusual to my character. Typically our weekly menu is fully laid out by Saturday afternoon, neatly written in bright-white across our pantry doors coated with black chalkboard paint. I consider the menu carefully before finalizing my grocery list, receiving feedback from Brian and swapping days according to the longevity of ingredients to be purchased. The planned meals may vary slightly after Sunday’s trip to the store, when I discover that there are perfect golden beets that I hadn’t counted on calling my name, or that red cabbage has been particularly popular lately, and therefore its typical spot in the produce department is empty save for one sad, wilted purple leaf.

Lately our trips to the grocery have been more rushed than usual, the product of two very busy schedules finding only slivers of overlap in which to make the drive to and wander the aisles of the market. Oftentimes we wind up stopping in on our way to or from other errands, on days not typically designated as ‘grocery days’, leaving me standing in the middle of the produce department, overwhelmed and without a list. And so we rely on stand-by ingredients, items we purchase most weeks religiously, and add in whatever else looks or sounds good at that moment. I quickly assemble meals in my head, substituting ingredients in and out of pastas and soups, making sure that we’ll be able to use whatever we purchase and not be left with a bag full of yellow brussels sprouts at the end of the week. It still happens occasionally, but at least I try.

Which brings me back to the weeknight, post-7pm. Brian and I stand in our kitchen, him ravenous and me a little chilly, peering into the pantry and refrigerator, pulling out ingredients to assemble a spontaneous meal together. Our preferences are changing with the season, moving from heavy and hearty to light and bright.  ‘Quick’ is a new requirement now that we’re getting started on preparation later in the evening, and ‘warm’ still plays a role for me after having been outside, barefoot and sweater-less, after the sun has set. The results have been fantastic; pasta tossed with leftover chicken, local ham and a light parmesan broth; a mélange of roasted chickpeas, potatoes and brussels sprouts; an on-a-whim creamy soup of potatoes, parsnips and asparagus.

The best part has been creating these recipes, together, according to our own at-that-moment preferences rather than the recommendations of a book, magazine or blog.  It is easy, when I have a plan, to lose myself in the kitchen to the preparation of dinner, excusing Brian to take care of one of the many items on his ever-growing ‘to do’ list. But when there is no plan, and the task is to create quickly, we come at it from both sides, each tossing in our own suggestions to make a dish that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

I’ll admit that this egg drop soup is a recipe that has been in our repertoire for years, but it is so simple and satisfying, and we nearly always have its ingredients in our kitchen, that it is perfect for a spontaneous lunch or dinner.  It is not enough on its own, which lead to the creation of the vegetable fried rice variation below, on a whim.

Egg Drop Soup

serves 2

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, divided
  • chunk of fresh ginger root, 1/4-inch thick by 1-inch diameter
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh scallions
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 4 tsp cornstarch
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk

Method

  1. Reserve 3/4 cup of the broth, and pour the rest into a large saucepan. Add the salt, ginger and scallions, and bring to a rolling boil.
  2. In a cup or small bowl, stir together the remaining broth and the cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk together using a fork. Drizzle the egg a little at a time from the fork into the boiling broth mixture. The egg should cook immediately.
  4. Once all of the egg has been dropped, stir in the cornstarch mixture gradually until the soup is the desired consistency.

This dish was nearly spontaneous, the only forethought being that I made extra brown rice a few days prior, so that it would be ready and waiting in the fridge for some version of fried rice that had yet to be determined.  It just so happened that the night we decided to make egg drop soup was also the night that the leeks were starting to look a little haggard, and I wanted to use the brussels sprouts before they reached that same state.  Thus, a new star was born.

Fried Rice with Leeks and Brussels Sprouts

serves 6

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp peanut oil, divided
  • 2 medium leeks, sliced thinly
  • 1 pound brussels sprouts, ragged outer leaves removed, sliced thinly (a food processor is a wonderful tool for this task)
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 cups steamed brown rice, cold (ideally, leftover from the night before)
  • sea salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the sliced leeks and brussels sprouts, and saute’ until tender and bright green, about 5 minutes.  Remove from pan and set aside.
  2. Wipe skillet clean, then heat over high heat, until a drop of water vaporizes upon impact.  Add the remaining 1 tbsp peanut oil, swirling to coat pan evenly, and heat until just starting to smoke.  Add eggs, tilting pan and swirling eggs to form a thin, even layer, and cook for 30 seconds.  Add rice and stir-fry, breaking up eggs and letting rice rest several seconds between stirs, until rice is hot, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the brussels sprouts and leeks, stir-frying to combine and heat through.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

winter’s setting sun

Winter and I have had a rocky go of it this year. We’ve waffled back and forth in a love / hate relationship that rivals the one I’ve currently got going on with my gym membership. On one hand, I’ve loved the quiet beauty a good snowstorm lays gently across my world and the resulting desire to cozy up on the couch with a hot cup of tea and a season of Entourage. On the other, I am tired of feeling stuck indoors, the outside ice, mud and frigid air enough to keep me hibernating under a quilt with the lights turned low. The result has been a bit too much cozying, and my motivation to cook, write, or log miles on the treadmill seems to be hiding in the same dark place as the sun. I am lost in the monotony of February, floating through scenes of white and gray, desperately seeking a reprieve in the form of a warm day, tiny chartreuse buds on the backyard Maple tree, fresh produce from local farmers that isn’t squash or cabbage.

There have been some brighter moments lately, a few shrieks of excitement released from my heart after witnessing the sun pierce a hazy layer of clouds, revealing a small patch of brilliant blue sky. I was thrilled to notice last week that two copper-toned birds have chosen to make a nest in the cold, drab ally outside my office window, and just this morning heard a woman excitedly discussing the yellow crocuses popping out from under a blanket of snow in her yard. All are sure signs of Spring’s impending arrival and moments I am desperate to capture permanently. Should snow fall again in the coming weeks I’d like to have a photograph stashed away in my back pocket to remind me that the end is near, that productivity will return with a sunshine-filled sky and baby birds chirping on the sill.

In the meantime, the meals I am managing to cook seem to have several similar qualities.  They are simple.  They are hearty and warm and filling.  They incorporate some ingredient that brightens the dish at multiple levels; to the eyes, to the nose, to the tongue. Whether it be golden citrus tossed in a salmon salad, vibrant leeks bobbing amongst emerald isles of kale, the scent of fresh lime wafting from my oven, each recipe is very carefully chosen to lift our spirits and carry us through these last (25!) days of Winter.

This salad is no exception to my new rules.  Hearty grains are joined by warm, earth-scented mushrooms to create a salad base as warm and satisfying as a family quilt enveloping shivering shoulders. Jewel-toned grape tomatoes and bright flecks of fresh parsley are the harbingers of this dish, reminders that Spring, followed closely by Summer, will be joining us soon. Served over a bed of spicy arugula and layered with shavings of Pecorino Toscano, this salad makes for a lovely, filling, early dinner, and is best enjoyed beside a window in the rays of Winter’s setting sun.

Warm Barley Salad with Roasted Tomatoes and Mushrooms

adapted from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop

serves 4 as a main course

Ingredients

  • 1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 4 medium shallots, thinly sliced
  • 5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 quart water
  • 1-1/2 cups pearl barley
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 6 cups packed baby arugula, spinach, or mix
  • 4 oz Pecorino Toscano, feta or goat cheese, diced or crumbled (I used a hard pecorino, shaved over the top of the salad)

Method

  1. Move an oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 425*.
  2. Toss the mushrooms, tomatoes, shallots and 2 tbsp of the oil together on a rimmed baking sheet.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Toast the veggies, stirring once, until the mushrooms and shallots are browned nicely, about 25 minutes.  Let cool slightly.
  3. Meanwhile, bring water, barley and pinch of salt to a boil in a large saucepan.  Reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the barley is tender but still a bit chewy, about 30 minutes.  Drain the barley well in a strainer and transfer to a large bowl.
  4. Toss the barley with the remaining 3 tbsp oil until coated evenly.  Add the roasted vegetables and parsley and toss to combine.  Cool slightly and then season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Divide the arugula or spinach among four large plates.  Spoon warm barley salad over each plate, sprinkle with cheese, and serve.
  6. Store barley salad separately from arugula or spinach and reheat for lunch the next day, if desired.

a backdrop of falling snow

Last Saturday another ten inches of snow fell across Charlottesville, blanketing my city in delicate drifts of sparkling white. I awoke in the wee morning hours, just as soft gray light started to seep through the cracks between the blinds over the bedroom window. Aside from the soft snores of the dogs nestled at my feet, all was quiet. The typical sounds of tires meeting asphalt, wind rustling tree branches and birds chirping from their power line perch were nonexistent, lost in the insulation provided by a muffling snow.

I slid out of bed, thankful that I’d kept socks on my feet and wouldn’t have to endure the cold hardwood floor against bare skin. Padding out to the kitchen I paused at a window to peek outside and was greeted with an idyllic view. Three inches of snow does wonders for an imperfect ground, provides each and every limb of surrounding trees with sugary peaks along their length, silences a high-trafficked road. I couldn’t deny that I enjoyed this scene – my outside world painted white; bright and shiny and devoid of mud. I stood there, mesmerized by my transformed street and the plump flakes still spiraling down from a silver sky, and made up with Winter.

Finally, the promise of a cup of coffee and a long kitchen agenda were enough to pull me from my trance. To have an entire Saturday with no errands, no obligations, no sunshine-filled sky tempting me to leash up the dogs for a hike in the woods, seemed luxurious. Despite the snowflake-clogged air, the light pouring through our windows was clear and bright, the ground having become a natural reflector as I slept. My camera screamed at me to get started, to not waste a single, brilliant moment. I simmered and sauteed and baked and photographed all day, stopping every once in awhile to marvel at the still-falling snow that had gifted me this time.

This soup emerged with perfect timing, the kale softening just as Brian came in from shoveling our sidewalks and driveway. Hearty with potatoes and greens, flavored by bright leeks and spicy sausage, it promises to warm the coldest of bodies and satisfy the grayest of minds. You can’t help but to be thankful for Winter as the thick broth slides down your throat, the heat of the sausage spreading from inside out, a sensation not necessarily welcome during the Summer months but oh so tasty against a backdrop of falling snow.

This soup is very easy to make, coming together in just 45 minutes. The hot Italian sausage is a key player, infusing the broth with wonderful flavor and heat.

Spicy Sausage, Potato and Kale Soup

serves 6

Ingredients

  • 2 large leeks, rinsed and sliced to 1/4-inch strips (about 3 cups total)
  • 2 cups diced onion
  • 3 large Russet potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes (leave about 1/2 the skin on the potatoes)
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 8 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 pound of hot Italian sausage, removed from casings
  • 3 cups of chopped kale (stems removed)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Melt butter in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks, onions and potatoes and stir to coat with butter.  Cover pot, reduce heat to low and let vegetables sweat for 15 minutes.
  2. Remove cover and add broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer.  Drop sausage in small chunks into soup.  Cover and let simmer for 20-25 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender.
  3. Remove 2 cups of soup from pot, avoiding large chunks of sausage.  Puree those 2 cups in a blender until smooth.  Add back to soup pot and stir to incorporate evenly.  Add kale and cover pot, allowing to simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
  4. Remove cover and lower heat.  Add heavy cream and stir to incorporate.  Heat through, but don’t let the soup simmer again or the cream will curdle a bit (as in my photos).
  5. Salt and pepper to taste.

This recipe, and Bella Eats,  made its debut on SuzySaid – Charlottesville on Monday. I have been asked to contribute a recipe each week to the site, and am so excited to be part of such a wonderful online resource for women in my city.  If you’re from Charlottesville or the surrounding area, check out SuzySaid – Charlottesville for information on upcoming events and local businesses.  And tune in each Monday for a new recipe from Bella Eats!