Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Shaggy Dog Story

What’s cooking? Sugar Snap Peas and Pasta

When our sons were growing up, we had a dog, a perfectly divine golden retriever named Spike. A 100% B personality – no real drive to do anything but eat, sleep, and be petted, with the occasional walk around the neighborhood. Though I now believe the walk was mostly a means to an end, for the biscuit he got on the return home.

Spike never barked. He squealed a bit when excited and he whined when it was time for dinner, but barking was much too aggressive an act.

Then one day, he got out of our yard and wandered off. I walked the neighborhood calling his name, but to no avail. I felt sure he was nearby – he was such a homebody, he wouldn’t have wandered far – but I was mostly afraid he was hurt. Then on my second circuit of our block, I started looking into the backyards of the neighbors. And there he was, trapped behind a fence. He’d gotten in but couldn’t figure the way out. He could see me and hear me calling, but he just stood there wagging his tail – no barking.

And that’s how my brain is working these days. Not long ago, in conversation with a friend, I forgot the word “infrastructure.” I know it perfectly well – but it wouldn’t come to me. I could see it wagging its tail – a long word, four or five syllables, starting with an “i,” and it had two parts. But my brain wouldn’t bark. So I said to my friend, “You know, roads and bridges...”

 “You mean infrastructure?” she said.

“Yes!! Thank you.” And we went on with our conversation.

So it’s these sorts of occurrences that remind me that I’m getting older. On the other hand,...

A group of our friends here in Austin has decided to hold “game nights” once a month. Rummicube, Sorry, canasta, backgammon,... When everyone shows up, we are 14, so sometimes we break into smaller groups and have a couple of games going at a time. Last month, though, my hubby took a game of Trivial Pursuit, so we divided into 4 teams and all played.

What an eye-opener. Turns out, everyone suffers from what I’ll call the Spike Syndrome. For instance, on the question of who played King George in “The King’s Speech,” everyone could picture Colin Firth – some could even name other movies he’d been in. But – maddeningly and hilariously – no one could call out his name.

As the game came down to the wire, my team was on the verge of winning, but we had one last question to answer: “Which Roman numerals correspond to 1,453?” Now, look away and see if you can figure it out before you read on.

As it happens, I like Roman numerals – the complete geek. So as the others on my team began calling out random letters, I held my hands out as if to calm the waters and said, “Wait – I can do this.”

All eyes were on me as I started with “M is 1000, and L is 50, and III for 3, but how to write 400? It’s C (100) less than 500, but what stands for 500? ” Arrgggh. I was having a Spike moment – I could see it wagging its tail, but... And the clock was counting down...

With about 3 seconds to go, my brain finally barked: D! “D! So it’s MCDLIII!!!” And we all cheered because we could stop the game and go home. But I basked in the glow for at least a day, that my brain, fuzzy as it might be, still works.

* * *

So it’s dinnertime, and my prince inquires sweetly (because he’s never sure how I’m feeling about the subject), “What’s for dinner, Snookums?”

Now, even in the Kitchen Goddess’s kitchen, there are those days when I say, “I have no idea.”

That usually means pizza or some other food prepared by Other People. But sometimes, if I’m honest with myself (which I try to be), I don’t really want OP food. So I check the pantry to see what form of pasta or rice we have, and stare at the contents of the fridge until something comes to mind. On the most recent such day, I seized on a package of sugar snap peas.

I checked out epicurious and found a pasta dish that included pesto made from the sugar snap peas. Then I read into the comments, and quite of few of the reviewers had eschewed the recipe pesto and combined the processed peas with some that was either store-bought or already sitting in the fridge from another recipe.

I could feel my brain warming up – of course, the Kitchen Goddess has pesto in the fridge, maybe even a couple of varieties. As you know, the KG loves pesto. And using ready-made pesto clinched the deal, because that raised the fast-and-easy factor by a huge amount. So much so that I’d like to call this Easy-Peas-y Pasta, but am afraid the pun would cause at least a few of you to gag. Which would be bad.

So here it is, and, if you’re interested, it carries a 3-fork rating out of 4, from 16 reviewers, and 100% said they’d make it again. That number will soon move to 17, as the Kitchen Goddess rates it a full 4 forks.

Sugar Snap Peas and Pasta

Adapted from Gourmet, April 2005

Makes 4 main-course servings.

1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed and strings discarded
1 pound penne pasta
1 cup pesto (use any you have in your fridge, or a good variety from your grocer)*
¼ cup heavy cream
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus optional additional for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

* Kitchen Goddess note: Most pesto recipes include nuts (often pine nuts or walnuts) and Parmigiano-Reggiano as thickeners. The cheese is also there for its umami flavor. In your choice of pesto, you should note whether it has Parmigiano already in the ingredients, and taste the pasta sauce before adding the cheese, as you may not want a full half cup. If you’re interested, the KG has a very nice recipe for pistou (that’s the French version) that contains no nuts. Click here for that recipe.

Before you begin, fill a medium-sized bowl half-full of ice and water, and set aside.

In a large pot of boiling salted water (about ¼ cup salt for 3 quarts water), cook the sugar snap peas for 2 minutes, then remove about half to the prepared bowl of ice water in order to stop the cooking. Continue cooking the remaining sugar snaps for another 2-2½ minutes, until tender, then use a slotted spoon or strainer to transfer them to the bowl of your food processor or blender.

Return the cooking water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, remove the portion of sugar snap peas from the ice water bath, and cut them crosswise into ½-inch pieces. Set them aside until the pasta is done.

To the sugar snaps in your food processor or blender, add the pesto and process until not quite smooth. Add the cream and process briefly, just to mix.

When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving ½ cup of the cooking water, and return the pasta to the empty cooking pot. Over low heat, toss the hot pasta with the sugar snap sauce and, if necessary, add enough of the ½ cup of saved cooking water to thin the sauce to desired consistency. (I added only a tablespoon or two.) Add the sliced sugar snaps and the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and stir gently to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with fruit or a green salad.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

I’m Rooting for the Blue and Gold Team

 What’s cooking? Sheet-Pan Salmon with Miso and Maple Syrup

When my two sons were living at home, Sunday afternoons were often devoted to watching
football. As a native Texan, I usually rooted for the Cowboys if they were playing – a practice that inevitably was a source of derision from the men in my family, who were all die-hard Steelers fans. If neither of our teams were playing, I almost always favored the team with the better looking uniforms – another reason for hooting from the male gallery.

The fact is that I don’t really like football, which I think I’ve mentioned to you before. That doesn’t stop me from going to the football-watching parties. Especially the Super Bowl parties, to which I invariably take my famous roll-out cookies. I make only stars, and decorate them in the colors of the teams who are playing. I love the challenge: How many different designs can I deliver given only 2-4 colors?

Patriots... again. These were for 2018, against...

But I’m getting a little weary of the Patriots’ success. I’ve iced and sprinkled my way through way too many red/navy/silver color schemes.

... the Eagles.
And before that, against the Falcons in 2017.
While I enjoyed decorating for the Eagles (midnight green/silver/black/charcoal) last year, my favorite year so far was 2014, when the Broncos (navy/orange) played the Seahawks (navy/gray/neon green). I don't have photos of 2014, but those were some fun colors – especially that neon green. And I long for the Dolphins (aqua/blue/orange) or maybe the Jaguars (black/teal/two shades of gold) to show up in the Super Bowl. Gimme some help, fellas!

I like the Broncos' colors. These were from 2016, against...
... the Panthers.

In the meantime, this year, I have to be content with the Rams’ decision to wear bright blue and yellow – a tribute to their win against the Titans in 2000, and a little more fun than their traditional navy, gold and white. And I’ll dream about a day in the far future when we have a Super Bowl whose participants are chosen on the basis of their uniform colors.

* * *

Even though it’s been a while since I’ve written, I haven’t stopped cooking. No sirree. And today I have a real treat for you. I’d call it a sheet pan dinner, but it really needs rice. Because you don’t want to leave any of that unbelievable marinade in the pan – you will want it on the plate and in your mouth. Let me just say that the leftovers engendered a small lunchtime skirmish the next day between me and my prince.

You’ll notice I also didn’t call this Salmon with Asparagus. That’s because it really makes almost no difference whether you use asparagus or green beans (which is what the author of this recipe used in The New York Times) or broccolini or broccoli. The Kitchen Goddess had asparagus, so by god that's what she cooked. The secret to this dish is the miso.

It comes in a big container, but it keeps 1-2 years in the fridge.
 Toss if moss/mold develop.
Kitchen Goddess note: Miso is a paste made mostly from fermenting soybeans. It’s a traditional Japanese seasoning with lots of uses, from sauces to pickling to soup base. High in protein, rich in vitamins and minerals, and gluten-free for those of you who care, miso is a culinary staple in both traditional and modern Japanese cooking, and these days, it’s become a star in the culinary firmament.

The most common flavor categories are white, red, and “mixed,” with the white miso being somewhat mellower or milder in flavor than the red. But all have an amazing impact on a dish, increasing the complexity of the flavors. Through the fermentation process, miso is a chief source of umami, one of the five basic tastes in addition to sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.

Try this: Take a couple of teaspoons of miso paste in a mug, dissolve it into a slurry with a tiny bit of warm water, add a cup of not-quite-boiling water and a nice squeeze of lime, and you have a terrific broth to drink as a pick-me-up between meals or a light addition to your lunch. The taste is mysterious – sweet, salty, nutty, mellow – and all from some fermented soybeans.

Sheet-Pan Salmon with Miso and Maple Syrup

Adapted from Colu Henry in The New York Times.

In the classic coffee-cream-sugar combination, the fat (cream) evens out the bitterness of the coffee and the sweetness of the sugar to produce a flavor combination that’s popular around the world. Similarly, in this recipe, the fattiness of the salmon evens out the flavors between the various components of the marinade: the rice wine vinegar (bitter), the maple syrup (sweet), and the soy sauce (salty). But the kicker is the miso, which adds a big dose of umami.

As I said, you need rice, though I expect egg noodles would also work. Once you start the rice, the rest of the dinner can be ready by the time the rice is done. It’s that fast.

Serves 4.

4  (6-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets, about 1-inch thick
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons white miso
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar (a.k.a. rice vinegar)
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, finely grated (use a rasp grater)
1½ pounds asparagus (or a pound of green beans), trimmed
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or a pinch of red-pepper flakes)
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Garnish: ¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro, using both leaves and tender stems
4 lime wedges, for serving

Cooked white rice, for serving

Line one or two sheet pans with baker’s parchment or aluminum foil. Rinse the salmon and pat dry with paper towels. Season well with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place the fish in a bowl or glass baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the maple syrup, miso, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic. Mix well, and pour over the salmon. With your fingertips, gently massage the marinade all over the fish. Let the fish marinate while the oven comes to temperature.

Preheat your oven to 400º.

In a large bowl, toss the asparagus (or whatever green veggie you chose) with the olive oil, Aleppo pepper, and sesame oil. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

When the oven has reached 400º, lay the salmon fillets skin-side down on the prepared sheet pans and scatter the asparagus (or other veggies) between and around the fillets. Spoon the remaining marinade over the fish.

Baked salmon and asparagus, before the final burst from the broiler. These fillets were 3 ounces each.

Bake the salmon and veggies for 12-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. When the salmon is nearly done, raise the oven temperature to broil and leave the pans another 1-2 minutes to lightly caramelize the glaze on the fish.

And after two minutes under the broiler.

Serve with white rice, lime wedges, and a scattering of cilantro.