One kid's adventures in gastronomy

Leave a comment

Chilly? Make Chili!

From what I can tell, I am too young to become embroiled in chili-making madness. Meaty or vegetarian, spicy or tame, saucy or dry? Any way you serve it, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to eat it. I was all about participating in the cooking of it—can openers are fascinating! But have you seen what chili looks like when it comes together? No thank you. I ate 1 bean so I could be excused from the table, and that’s the last I want to think about it.

Love, Jude

Mama’s Vegetarian Chili

Olive oil
½ sweet onion, chopped (if your onion is smallish, use the whole thing)
1 or 2 colorful bell peppers, chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ pounds sliced mushrooms (variety of choice)
1 quart home-canned tomatoes or 1 can (28 oz) fire-roasted diced tomatoes, both with juice (regular diced tomatoes work too)*
2 cans (15 oz) chili beans or red kidney beans, rinsed and drained*
1 can (15 oz) lentils, rinsed and drained
Chili powder
Salt and pepper

In a large pot, pour a generous swirl of olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the peppers, if you have them (Mama forgot them.), and cook another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for another minute or so. Add the mushrooms and allow to cook until very soft and the moisture they let off is nearly evaporated, say 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes. Once it starts bubbling, reduce the heat a smidge and allow to simmer. Stir in the beans and lentils, then add the spices to taste.

You don’t need the oregano if you don’t like it, and you can certainly use fresh, if you have it. Toss in a bay leaf if you’ve got it, or chili pepper flakes or thyme. Chili powder and cumin are pretty sure bets, though, as are s&p. Simmer until you’re ready to eat it. If you’re looking for a long simmer, then hold off on adding the lentils until you’re almost ready to eat. They just need to be warmed through.

Serve with pasta, mac-n-cheese, or rice; sour cream; chives; shredded Cheddar, cornbread… you get the idea. You can also serve with meat, as Mama did for Papa and me. She used a grill pan and cooked up some country ribs while the chili simmered. (Now those were good.)

Makes about 3 quarts, which freeze well

Note: If using home-canned tomatoes that are whole, chop them, reserving their juice, or simply reach into the pot once you add them and gently squish them. Be prepared for some splatter, though. Look for beans in BPA-free cans (or cook your own from scratch).

Leave a comment

Just don’t call them “arancini”

…because then I will not want to eat them. Now, “rice balls,” on the other hand, is so much more appealing. After all, we enjoy the idea of a food before the first bite ever reaches our mouths. Or so I’m told.

Take the little rice ball, for example. What 3-year-old worth his salt wouldn’t want to make one of those? As the name implies, arancini (Italian for “little oranges”) are little balls of rice that are breaded then fried or baked. (Often they’re made with saffron, and that, coupled with their orangish hue once breaded & fried, lends them their name.)

We happened to have leftover squash risotto, and Mama thought I might enjoy making the little balls with her. First, we set up our breading station, which includes a dish of flour, a beaten egg, and a dish of bread crumbs. I crack all the eggs in this house now.

"I didn't even break the yolk."

“I didn’t even break the yolk.”

The flour helps the egg stick to the rice ball, and the egg helps the bread crumbs stay put.

The flour helps the egg stick to the rice ball, and the egg helps the bread crumbs stay put.

And I also insist on beating the egg with a fork.

I took this photo myself.

I took this picture myself.

After this, I lost interest. I didn’t want to messy my hands in the cold risotto. Instead of helping, I raided the fridge.

Papa bough contraband strawberries out of season, much to my delight!

Papa bought contraband strawberries out of season, much to my delight!

Mama said we have to get all the balls formed before we begin the breading process, because we’re just going to get our fingers even messier once that starts.

Now we're set to start covering up those naked little rice balls with crunchy bread crumbs.

Now we’re set to start covering up those naked little rice balls with crispy bread crumbs.

To bread a ball, gently roll it in the flour, then roll it in the egg (allowing excess to drip off), then roll it in the bread crumbs. Set aside. (You don’t want to start putting them in the hot oil as you make them because they’ll cook unevenly.) Once Mama set the frying pan of oil over medium heat, she shooed me from the kitchen. But I could hear those rice balls sizzling, and the house smelled good.

Incidentally, that little scarecrow on the plate is me!

That’s a side of balsamic-roasted asparagus and portabella mushrooms.

I was eager to try one of those little guys. I really was. But to Mama’s dismay, I did not love them. I took my “no thank you” bite, said, “They are not bad,” and passed on any more. They had a nice crunch with a warm, soft center, but what can I say? I told Mama to stop calling them arancini.

Love, Jude

Arancini (“Rice Balls”)
(You totally don’t need a recipe for this, but here’s something to get you started.)

Cold risotto (plain or with “stuff” in it; we had about 1 or 2 servings left over)
2 eggs, divided (1 optional)
Bread crumbs (we tend to use panko, but use whatever you have on hand)
Canola or olive oil

Make the arancini whatever size you like, from Ping-Pong to a bit larger than golf ball size. Press the mixture into your palms, and gently form a ball. (If you’re finding that your mixture isn’t holding together well enough, lightly beat an egg and thoroughly mix it in to the rice, then try again.) Set balls aside.

Prepare 3 bowls or shallow dishes for a breading station: 1 with flour, 1 with a lightly beaten egg, and 1 with bread crumbs. Season each with salt and pepper.

Roll a ball completely in the flour, then the egg (allowing excess to drip off), then the bread crumbs. Set aside and repeat until all balls are crumbed.

Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a large skillet over medium heat. Toss a few flecks of flour into it—if they sizzle, it’s ready. Carefully add the arancini. Do not overcrowd. (Work in batches, if necessary.) Fry until golden, then turn until golden on all sides (just a couple minutes). If they’re getting overly dark, lower the heat slightly. Remove to a plate lined with paper towel. They’re hot, so be careful!

Note: Mama says some people press a tiny bit of filling inside the little ball, whether that’s ham or cooked sausage or chopped mushrooms. Experiment and have fun. (On this Mardi Gras Tuesday, maybe you can make a play on king cake and hide a petite plastic baby in one. That would be so silly!)

Leave a comment

Sloppy Judes

Mama surprised Papa with a cow share. If, like me, you had an image of a group of cows sharing their toys with one another, allow me to clarify: Mama and a group of other people paid for a pasture-raised, organically fed cow (apparently named Charlie), whose meat they then divided amongst themselves.

I’m still confused, as I thought “hamburger” came from chickens.

At any rate, she made what she called “Sloppy Judes,” loosely based on a Sloppy Joes recipe she found online.  She thought I would enjoy eating these because they have my name in them and because I could get all sloppy without fallout.

Meat mixture simmering in one skillet, buns toasting in another.

Meat mixture simmering in one skillet, buns toasting in another.

Not so. I wanted to eat the bun—and not any part that touched the meat mixture, a little of which I ate with a fork.

I'm debating whether I should try this as a sandwich.

I’m debating whether I should try this as a sandwich. I think not.

Even though I ate some of it, it was begrudgingly, so I’m going to give this dinner a “miss.” I just didn’t like the chopped up pepper and onions mixed in with the soft meat, and I think ketchup should be saved for hot dogs. But I like meat very much, so Papa and I are looking forward to seeing what else Charlie will provide for us.

Love, Jude


Breakfast in Bed

Some folks call this “toad in a hole.” Others, like my GeeGee, call it a “bird’s nest.” Either way, I think it’s a funny name for “egg in toast.” Mama keeps my yolk a little runny, so it perfectly soaks into the surrounding toast. Complete with a smoothie and some sausage, this was a terrific way to start the day.

Even better, Mama served it to me in bed. But just so you know, if you give a kid breakfast in bed, he’s going to ask for it the next day. And the day after that.

I was able to keep watching a show on the iPad AND eat my breakfast. Win-win.

I was able to keep watching a show on the iPad AND eat my breakfast. Win-win.

Love, Jude

Toad in a Hole/Bird’s Nest

Slices of bread
1 egg per slice of bread
Butter, room temperature
Salt and pepper

Tear out a piece of bread from the center of the slice. (The larger the hole, the more the egg will spread.) Butter the bread, on both sides if desired. Heat a skillet over medium heat. (Mama used a nonstick, just because.) When hot, lay the bread in the skillet, butter-side down, and then crack an egg into the center hole. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, or other seasonings, if desired.

The eggs fit nicely in their little bread nests.

The eggs fit nicely in their little bread nests.

Cook until egg is of desired doneness—break the yolk if you like yours over hard, or “stepped on,” as Mama calls it. Carefully turn over and  finish cooking on the other side. Enjoy!

The buttery bread gets good and toasty.

The buttery bread gets good and toasty.

1 Comment

Panna cotta? Why notta?

If you looked in our fridge, you’d see sundry dairy products: milk for me and Papa, milk for Mama, milk for mama’s coffee, buttermilk for pancakes… Clearly, we have a yen for the stuff. So when Mama decided to show me how to turn the milk into something you can eat with a spoon, I was intrigued.

Panna cotta, in its simplest explanation, is eggless Italian custard. It’s cream that’s been cooked with a smidge of sugar, combined with gelatin, and allowed to set. What could be simpler? And the “formula” is easy enough for a kid like me to remember:

3 cups liquid to 1 package gelatin

That’s it! Mama chooses to divide the liquid equally between heavy cream and half-and-half. She could divvy it up differently or use regular milk, goat’s milk, or even nondairy creamer. She noted that non-milks such as coconut milk and almond milk don’t have enough fat in them to properly set without further tweaks to the recipe. They’ll come together, but they won’t have the proper texture, which Mama says should be solid enough to sit on a spoon but soft enough to wobble like the backs of her arms when she waves.

Panna cotta, two ways

Panna cotta, two ways

Mama says there’s little reason to fear gelatin (unless you’re talking about those neon-hued sugar-laden varieties or this; then be afraid, be very afraid). While it’s true that gelatin is an animal product, it’s highly processed. So, much like the wasp in a fig, it’s not like you’re eating an actual bone. There are more natural varieties (such as Jensen’s) available, and a vegetarian alternative is agar agar, which is fun to say. Gelatin also comes in sheets, but we’re sticking with the powdered kind. Either variety basically has an indefinite shelf-life, so scrounge in your cupboards for a box tucked away in the back.

Working with gelatin requires a two-step process. First it needs to be bloomed, which has nothing to do with James Joyce and everything to do with coating it with cool liquid.

It starts to get all wrinkly immediately.

It starts to form a skin and get all wrinkly immediately.

Then it needs to be melted by either heating it over a low heat or combining it with a hot (not boiling) liquid. Using a hot liquid to bloom gelatin will impede the blooming process, whereas boiling the gelatin at any point will deactivate its gelling properties. (Though isn’t it interesting that you could melt a batch of finished gelatin and reset it several times?)

Because this recipe involves a lot of hot liquid, Mama did most of the work. She made it just before she cooked dinner (chicken piccata, steamed green beans with toasted almonds, and mushroom rice pilaf), and by the time we cleaned up the dinner mess, it was ready. I love how it jiggles but even more, I love how velvety this is. It’s creamy and subtly sweet. What’s more, it looks fancypants but isn’t.

I especially liked going "Boing! Boing!" on top of the panna cotta.

I especially liked going “Boing! Boing!” on top of the panna cotta.

Love, Jude

Basic Panna Cotta

1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups half-and-half, divided
¼ cup sugar (or more, to taste)
1 package gelatin (or 2 ¼ tsp)
Vanilla bean/vanilla extract/other flavorings, to taste

In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream, 1 cup of the half-and-half, and the sugar. Set over medium-low heat and gently warm, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is hot and the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Do not boil. (Remove from the heat, if necessary, or turn the heat down to low.)

Meanwhile, pour the remaining half-and-half in a shallow bowl, then sprinkle the packet of gelatin over the top in an even layer. Set aside to bloom the gelatin, about 5 minutes. When the surface looks wrinkly and there’s no dry powder remaining, it’s ready. (If there’s a lot of dry powder, then gently stir to get it wet.)

Ready to combine. You can see a bit of dry gelatin powder at 12 o'clock. Mama mixed it in before adding it to the hot cream.

Ready to combine. You can see a bit of dry gelatin powder at 12 o’clock. Mama mixed it in before adding it to the hot cream.

Once the cream mixture is hot, stir in any extracts for flavor,* off-heat. Start with ½ tsp and go from there. Taste it. See if it needs more flavor or more sweetness to your liking. Stir in the gelatin mixture with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Stir and stir until all the gelatin is dissolved. (Check the back of the spoon/spatula—you’ll see little globs of unmelted gelatin if they’re there.)

To serve panna cotta in glasses, jars, or dishes, simply pour it into the appropriate vessel. (You might want to pour the finished mixture into a glass measure for easier and neater pouring first.) Do this carefully so it doesn’t splash all up the sides of the glass, which you’ll see once it’s set. Cover with plastic wrap (not touching the surface of the panna cotta) and chill in the fridge until set, 1 to 2 hours. (If your glasses have already been in the fridge, it’ll set a little faster.)

Mama topped this with some leftover pear-poaching syrup. If the panna cotta weren't properly set, the liquid would never sit on top like that.

Mama topped this with some leftover pear-poaching syrup. If the panna cotta weren’t properly set, the liquid would never sit on top like that.

To unmold the panna cotta for a fancier presentation, lightly coat or spray custard cups or ramekins with a neutral-flavored oil (e.g., grapeseed or canola). Divide the finished mixture among them, cover, and chill as above. To serve, dip each mold in hot water for 10 seconds, run a knife around the edge, and invert onto a plate. (It helps to put the plate on the ramekin, and then invert.) If the panna cotta doesn’t easily slip out of the mold, then dip it in the hot water again, making sure the water comes up as high as the panna cotta.

It's just another way to eat it.

It’s just another way to eat it.

Either way, serve it topped with fresh berries, berries made into a sauce, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, crumbled gingersnap or thin-mint cookies, etc. The possibilities are really endless.

Makes 6 1/2-cup servings

*Note: If using whole spices as flavoring, such as the seeds and pod of a vanilla bean or cardamom pods or cinnamon sticks, etc., steep them in the cream as it heats. Remove before adding the gelatin mixture. Also, alternatives to sugar seem to work as well as the white stuff: stevia, honey, agave, even those ghastly fake sugars (but you didn’t hear that from me).



Leave a comment

A recipe for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

First, Happy New Year! (Mama told me it’s a nice thing to say to people.)

We started today’s breakfast last night by making challah bread. We’ve made it before when Mama made angel food cake and used the leftover egg yolks for challah. Last night, we made the challah so that this morning we could have it as egg nog French toast! Mama knows only a little bit about challah’s origin, and she says it’s fitting to make the bread one night and eat it the next day.

When making bread, it’s important to gather all the ingredients first. It’s also helpful to use a scale. Mama’s made bread with standard measures, but if you’re looking to have consistent results every time, then weighing your ingredients is the “weigh” to go. (I don’t know why that’s supposed to be funny.)

The flour, salt, milk, yolks, and oil are in the mixing bowl, and the yeast and water are getting cozy in the measuring cup.

The flour, salt, milk, yolks, and oil are in the mixing bowl, and the yeast and water are getting cozy in the measuring cup.

After you’ve mixed your dough, there’s nothing much to do except wait. And as I wasn’t allowed to stay up to ring in the new year, Mama took the waiting shift as I went off to bed.

But for breakfast, I was all-hands-on-deck. Choose any French toast recipe you like (we usually wing it) and simply substitute the milk or cream for egg nog. (I call it “donut milk” because it’s so yummy.)

I cracked this egg by myself, and I didn't even break the yolk!

I cracked this egg by myself, and I didn’t even break the yolk!

I insisted on mixing the egg and egg nog.

I insisted on mixing the egg and egg nog.

I used my hands to dip and turn the sliced bread to get it coated in nog mixture. Mama likes to use a fork.

I used my hands to dip and turn the sliced bread to get it coated in nog mixture. Mama likes to use a fork.

The French toast is super golden, which makes it extra yummy.

The French toast is super golden, which makes it extra yummy.

I didn't even need syrup with my egg nog French toast.

I didn’t even need syrup with my egg nog French toast.

I have to say this was a good start to 2014. I look forward to many more surprises like this one.

Love, Jude

Challah Bread

11 fluid oz warm water, 105–110°F (or, just hot enough so you can hold your finger in it without too much discomfort)
2 Tbsp active dry yeast
20 oz bread flour (Mama replaced about 4 oz. with regular whole-wheat flour)
2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp dry milk powder
1 Tbsp oil (canola works fine)
6 large egg yolks
1 egg + splash of milk for egg wash

In a glass measure or bowl, whisk together the water and the yeast until foamy. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the remaining ingredients (except egg wash) in the order listed. Pour yeast mixture on top. Mix with the dough hook on low speed for a minute or two to bring everything together, then increase speed to #2 for about 5 more minutes. Test the dough by stretching a small bit between your fingers. If it gives a good stretch before breaking, then you’re set.

Remove the dough to a greased sheet tray, cover with a clean towel, and allow to rest in a warm spot until doubled in size, anywhere from 1-2 hours. (You can shape the dough in to a lovely ball first, but it’ll still proof without the beauty treatment.)

Here's the dough after it's doubled in size. It's smooth and puffy.

Here’s the dough after it’s proofed, or doubled in size. It’s smooth and puffy.

And here’s why Mama loves to make challah: you get to braid it! First, give the dough ball a few good kneads to get out all the air. Divide it into 3 equal pieces, then channel your inner 3-year-old and roll them into ropes (or snakes!).

Roll these out like ropes.

Roll out each piece of dough into a rope, however long you like–just not too skinny. You’ll know when the dough has had enough.

Set the ropes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and pinch together 3 ends.

Pinch together the top of the braid.

Pinch together the top of the braid. This isn’t prom, so there’s no need to make it pretty just yet.

Mama’s left-handed, so she starts the braid with the left strand. Start it with the right if that is more comfortable for you. Gently cross the left strand over the center strand.

Left goes over center.

Left goes over center.

Then the right strand goes over the “new” center strand (the one that was just the left strand).

Now right goes over the center. Braid them loosely because they're going to need room to proof again.

Now right goes over the center. Braid them loosely because they’re going to need room to proof again.

And so on. When you get to the end, pinch the strands together and tuck them under a little bit.

The strands are tight enough to stay together but loose enough to allow the dough room to expand.

The strands are tight enough to stay together but loose enough to allow the dough room to expand.

Because Mama divided her dough a little unevenly when she first separated it into 3, she had one strand that was a bit larger than the other two. So she lopped off a hunk of that dough and made a tiny little challah with it to decorate the bigger loaf. With or without the add-on, now’s the time to make the egg wash and gently brush it on all parts of the bread–really get it in between all those twists.

Egg wash the dough first, then adorn with any embellishments. Egg wash the add-ons, too.

Egg wash the dough first, then adorn with any embellishments. Egg wash the add-ons, too.

Allow it to proof once more, about an hour or so. Have the oven preheating to 350°F.

Good thing there was space between those braided strands.

Good thing there was space between those braided strands.

Egg wash again, if desired. Bake until it reaches an internal temp of 190°F or higher, 20-25 minutes. It should be beautiful and golden.

Golden on the top and light and fluffy on the inside.

Golden on the top and light and fluffy on the inside.

Try as hard as you can to let it cool before diving in. The house will smell wonderful in the meantime.

Makes 1 large loaf or 2 smaller loaves.

Leave a comment

Kimchi (no burial required)

Mama picked the last of the bok choy from her garden at work and thought it would be a good time to make a batch of kimchi. She had always been a little intimidated by it because it’s often so spicy, and traditional kimchi is buried right in the jar and left to basically rot (or rather, ferment). But then she took a class on how to make it from a nice lady named Robyn who was traveling the country promoting her book, Home Sweet Homegrown.

Kimchi is a spicy/sour Korean dish, made of vegetables (often cabbage). It’s eaten as both a side dish and a component of main dishes such as soups, scallion pancakes, fish tacos, or even eggs. Mama says that what makes it extra special is that, as a fermented food, it actually has certain health benefits, particularly in your belly. I don’t know about all that, but Mama seems to know what she’s talking about sometimes, so I’m going to go with her on this one. But you’ll forgive me for not reporting on my like or dislike of it because I don’t plan on getting anywhere near the stuff. No, thank you! (Mama thought I would eat the kimchi pancakes, but I would not.)

Love, Jude

P.S., Happy Christmas!


1 head bok choy, chopped into 1” pieces
1 daikon radish (about 4 ounces), sliced [Mama used watermelon radishes because that’s what was in the garden]
Kosher salt
3 cloves garlic
One 2-inch knob ginger, peeled
1/2 cup Korean red pepper powder (kochukaru/gochugaru*)
2 tablespoons sugar

Behold the beautiful bok choy:

Be sure to rinse the bok choy really well to remove all the dirt.

Be sure to rinse the bok choy really well to remove all the dirt.

Place bok choy leaves and daikon in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1–2 tablespoons kosher salt. Toss to combine, cover, then let sit at room temperature until cabbage is wilted, at least 1 hour and up to 12. It should release about 1/4 to 1/2 cup liquid.

The cabbage and radish lie in their little blanket of salt.

The bok choy and watermelon radish lie in their little blanket of salt. Aren’t they pretty?

Meanwhile, combine the garlic, ginger, and red pepper powder in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process until a rough paste is formed, about 30 seconds total, scraping down sides as necessary.

Once the bok choy is wilted, add the chili mixture and turn to coat.

Wear gloves or use a spoon to mix in the spice.

Wear gloves or use a spoon to mix in the spice.

Add 1 cup purified water to the mixture. Taste the liquid and add more salt as necessary (it should have the saltiness of sea water).

This is what kimchi looks like before it goes into the jar.

This is what kimchi looks like before it goes into the jar.

Pack kimchi into a quart-size sterilized mason jar, pressing down firmly to pack tightly and using a wooden spoon to release any air bubbles trapped in the bottom of the jar. This is important as your kimchi will be releasing its own amount of air bubbles as it ferments, so try to get as much excess air out as possible beforehand. Cover the kimchi entirely with its liquid, as the liquid is what protects the vegetables from succumbing to bad bacteria.

Jarred and ready to ferment.

Jarred and ready to ferment.

If there’s not enough liquid to completely cover the veggies, lay a clean leaf of lettuce or cabbage on top of them to help push them down.

Seal the jars tightly and allow them to sit at cool room temperature for 24 hours, then transfer to the refrigerator. Allow to ferment at least 1 week before eating. Kimchi will last for up to 1 month after opening. Alternatively, place directly in fridge after packing and taste daily starting after the first week until it’s as sour as you like it. (At this point, you can drain excess brine from your kimchi. A little liquid is good, but no one wants soggy kimchi.)

*Note: Korean red pepper powder is easily found in Asian markets. It comes in a bag larger than you think you’ll ever use, but it doesn’t cost a lot. Any errors in this recipe are Mama’s and not the nice lady’s who gave the workshop.

Leave a comment

“They look like sea shells!”

I helped Mama make stuffed shells. They’re really easy. Basically, I took a cooked pasta shell and, before handing it to her to stuff, I took a bite out of it.

Usually Mama makes a double batch of shells, bakes ones, and freezes the other in a disposable pan. But then you have a large “brick” (so she says) taking up freezer space, which’ll take longer to bake, and you’re left with acidic tomato sauce sitting in aluminum—and they don’t like each other very much.

Tonight, Mama tried a new approach: freeze the stuffed shells like she would berries. That is, spread them out on a baking sheet, freeze them until they’re solid, then bag them together in dinner-size groups. Then, when it’s time to use them, just take out a bag and arrange them in the baking pan with fresh sauce for dinner in no time at all.

A nice side of veggies made this a meal fit for a kid like me.

A nice side of veggies made its way on the plate shortly after this was taken.

I like the shells very much. They’re cheesy and noodle-y, and they have lots of good sauce. And they really do look like sea shells.

Love, Jude

Stuffed Shells
(this makes a double batch, or enough for a few freezer-size portions)

2 boxes (12 oz each) jumbo shells
2 large containers ricotta cheese (we used part-skim)
3 cups grated Parmesan cheese
8 eggs
Chopped fresh herbs, if desired (we used parsley, chives, and oregano from the garden)
Salt and pepper
Chili flakes, if desired for heat
1 quart tomato sauce (we used homemade, but make this easy on yourself and used jarred if desired)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (or more, as desired)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In salted boiling water, par-cook the shells (you’ll probably need to do this in 2 batches). This means to cook them just until they become pliable, 5 or 6 minutes. Drain, quickly rinse to help cool them down, and toss with a little bit of olive oil. Set aside on a baking sheet.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, herbs, salt and pepper, and chili flakes if using. When the shells have cooled enough to handle, spoon the filling into them. Fill them as much or as little as you like. They’re your shells. Mama stuffs them enough to keep them open without too much filling piling out. (She used a large table spoon.)

Spread 1 cup tomato sauce around the bottom of an 8 x 8” baking dish. Arrange 12 stuffed shells in it. (It’s okay that they touch.)

If you can fit a few more in there, go for it.

If you can fit a few more in there, go for it.

Pour the remaining sauce over the shells, making sure all the shells are completely covered, as they’ll need the moisture to finish cooking in the oven.

Don't be shy about the sauce.

Don’t be shy about the sauce.

Sprinkle with mozzarella to cover.

Ready to be baked.

Ready to be baked.

Bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. The mozzarella should be bubbling and golden, and the center should be hot. Let sit for 10 minutes to allow the cheeses to congeal.

Mama took out a couple right away for me so they could cool. It's a little runny in that corner as a result. Resist the urge to dig in right away!

Mama took out a few for me so they could cool. It’s a little runny in that corner as a result. Resist the urge to dig in right away!

To freeze the remainder of the stuffed shells, arrange them on the lightly oiled baking sheet. Try to keep them from touching (but it’s okay if a couple do). Set in the freezer until frozen solid, at least 1 hour.

They really do look like sea shells.

They really do look like sea shells.

Remove from the freezer and bag in desired portions. Mama did baker’s dozens because that’s what fit in the bags; she got 4 bags (+ dinner). May also make a second assembled batch, with sauce, and freeze the whole thing. It can go right into the oven, but you should decrease the oven temp to 325°F, and bake until the center is hot.

Serves 3–4

Note: Feel free to bake off more than 12 in a larger size baking dish. You’ll need to increase the amount of sauce and mozzarella accordingly. If using jarred tomato sauce, consider livening it up by sautéing half an onion in olive oil until soft and golden; then add a clove or two of minced garlic a minute before adding the sauce to heat through.

Leave a comment

It’s applesauce day!

It’s cold outside today, but it’s warm and smelling of cinnamon and cloves inside. We made 12 pints of applesauce, and we barely made a dent in our apples!

Mama decided it was go much faster if we kept the peels on. They blend right up in the immersion blender.

Mama decided it would go much faster if we kept the peels on. They blend right up with the immersion blender.

Papa showed me a new way to eat applesauce: as something to dip my pork chop into. Yes, indeed!

Love, Jude

Leave a comment

A Gratin so Easy You Can Do It In Your Sleep

Mama didn’t feel like cooking dinner after a long weekend of chasing me around (don’t forget the 60 pounds of apples we picked). And she didn’t want to go to the store, either. She thought about what we had on hand, and voilà: a gratin was born.

Mama explained that gratins can be made out of pretty much any hardy vegetable: turnips, potatoes, fennel, squash, beets, even carrots. What makes them into a gratin is that they are layered with cream (and cheese, if desired) and then—this is the crucial step—topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, and butter to make it crunchy. Think of a gratin as savory crème brûlée: crispy on the top, creamy on the bottom. Each bite should have a bit of both, which is why gratin dishes are often shallow and oval, to provide more surface area for that wonderful crunch.

We’ve had a giant butternut squash sitting around for a while. Every couple of days, Mama hacks a hunk off its neck, peels it, and proceeds with dinner. For the gratin, she sliced it thinly (about ¼” thick) on the mandolin because the thinner the veggies, the quicker they’ll soften in the oven. We also had a couple organic russet potatoes on hand, which Mama also peeled and ran over the mandolin. (She said a food processor’s slicing blade would likely do a fine job, as well as a good ol’ sharp knife.)

As we don’t have a gratin dish, Mama opted for a regular 8” x 8” baking dish. (I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone.) She layered the squash, overlapping it slightly, and then sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and a few raspy shavings of Pecorino (because we had more of that than we did Parmesan). She drizzled it with heavy cream that was left over from a dish Papa made earlier in the week. She could’ve used her half-and-half or even my milk, but if you’re going for creamy, why not go whole hog?

We were starting to get down to the bulb portion of the squash, so there are a few funny pieces in there. It doesn't matter, so long as there's a full layer.

We were starting to get down to the bulb portion of the squash, so there are a few funny pieces in there. It doesn’t matter, so long as there’s a full layer.

She did the same thing with the potatoes, then repeated each layer once more.

Little potatoes all nice in a row.

Little potatoes all nice in a row.

She used 2 potatoes and maybe a pound of squash (she’s estimating). The cream was whatever was left in the pint—about a cup, maybe a splash more. And the cheese was as much as we liked (but certainly enough to give a good covering to the veggies). Mama said she could have put some chopped sage in there, or steeped it in the cream, but she wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to walk outside to get some. (Sundays are like that sometimes.)

Jude on Food: If you run out of one vegetable, substitute something else. No one will notice that the layers aren’t exactly the same because they’ll be too busy eating. That’s why this dinner is so easy!

Before shaving cheese on the top layer, Mama gently pressed everything down. She said that making sure the layers are flat will help with the baking, and it will also help distribute the cream. She ended up adding a bit more cream because she said you want to be sure the top-most pieces are in moisture (though not swimming in it).

Then she shaved more cheese on top, covered it with foil, and put it in the oven, where it sat for a good hour. Remember what I said about gratins being creamy? Well, keep it in the oven until the vegetables are so soft, you could cut even the center ones with a butter knife or spoon. The cream will be bubbling too (and very hot!).

This butter knife went into the veggies as if they were...well, butter.

This butter knife went into the veggies as if they were…well, butter.

Now comes the pièce de résistance. In a small bowl, Mama combined a couple spoonfuls of panko breadcrumbs (because that’s what had; we’ve used them before) with an equal amount of finely chopped nuts that she pulled from the freezer. She thought they might have been hazelnuts, but she said pecans or walnuts would have been equally good, so she wasn’t too concerned about it. She mixed in a couple pats of melted butter, sprinkled this on top of the gratin, then put it back in the oven until it turned golden, about 10 minutes.

Golden and delicious!

Golden and delicious!

To be honest, I really did find this gratin to be delicious. It was silky and flavorful, and I liked the added texture. It reminded me of my morning granola. But I was in a mood, so I decided I wouldn’t eat any until I was promised a ghost story with firefighters.

Love, Jude

Winter Squash-Potato Gratin

1 pound peeled and seeded butternut squash, thinly sliced
2 russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 pounds)
1 cup heavy cream, half-and-half, or milk
1/3 cup grated or shredded Pecorino or Parmesan cheese (Mama used a rasp, or Microplane)
Salt & pepper
2–3 Tbsp breadcrumbs or panko
2–3 Tbsp finely chopped nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans)
1–2 Tbsp butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Arrange the sliced squash on the bottom of a 2-quart glass baking dish (square, oval, or round), slightly overlapping. Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle  cheese over. Drizzle heavy cream so that most of the squash slices have some moisture on them.

Repeat the layer using the potatoes. Then repeat each layer one more time. (If you don’t want your hands to be all cheesy, don’t add the cheese until after you do the next step.) Press down on the top layer to ensure the slices are flat and are touching cream. Add more cream if necessary. Sprinkle with a final bit of cheese.

Cover with foil and bake until the innermost vegetables are perfectly soft, 50–60 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs, nuts, and melted butter. Sprinkle on top of the vegetables, then return to the oven, uncovered, until golden, about 10 minutes.

Allow to rest 15 minutes or so to allow the dish to come together a bit.

Note: You may certainly start with the potatoes and end with the squash. If you don’t want to add nuts to the topping, replace them with more cheese! Finally, the amounts of everything are approximate. Use enough veggies to cover 1 layer and enough cheese & cream to cover that. Finally, you can make this the night before, keep it in the fridge, then bake it the next day.