Cacio e Pepe, Heretic Style (with Feta!)

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Solo pepe macinato fresco, per favore.

Cacio e pepe* couldn’t be simpler, right? It literally translates to “cheese and pepper.” But this is much like saying fútbol (or football or soccer, depending on your home) is simple; you just kick a ball into a net. People actually come to blows over whether to use Pecorino Romano, or Parmigiano Reggiano, or Grana Padano, or a blend of two or three of them, or one or more of them with a smidgen of Asiago. Not that I want to tar them all with the same brush, but if Italians didn’t invent arguing, they certainly perfected it.

Ultimately, you want a salty cheese that can (with a little of the pasta water) melt into the warm noodles to coat them in a creamy sauce, much the way the Day-Glo orange powder, along with some milk and butter, lovingly hugs Kraft Dinner. And, as it happened, I had such a cheese: Meredith Dairy Sheep and Goat Cheese, a Feta-like concoction from Australia. No idea where I got it; it sells for a positively jaw-dropping price on Amazon, and I won’t even link there because no sensible person would pay $14.99 USD + $12.99 shipping for an 11 oz. / 320 g jar, good though it is. [And you’re hearing this from someone who regularly uses chicken stock that sells for $7 USD per liter.] It’s possible that you might find something similar if you have a Greek market in your area, but it seems to be ridiculously expensive everywhere I’ve looked online. Fortunately, it is also stupidly easy to make, and I expect it will forthwith become a fridge staple, much like preserved lemons. Incidentally, some recipes will tell you to use your marinated cheese within two weeks. No need, especially if it is refrigerated. One blogger claims to have consumed some that was over four years old, and found it delicious. [Full disclosure: I just checked my jar, and the recommended “use by” date was December 2016. I promise to have my survivors update the page, should it kill me.] Not only does the marination process mellow out the Feta, but when you’re done with the cheese, the leftover oil can be used in a salad dressing. [What’s the analogue of “nose-to-tail” here? “Lid-to-base?”]

Bucatini is the ideal pasta for this dish, thanks to its toothiness. As with the other ingredients in this recipe, because there are so few, you ought to use the best you can reasonably afford. I even used filtered water for making the pasta, rather than just taking it directly from the tap.

INGREDIENTS
16 oz. / 454 g pasta (such as bucatini, egg tagliolini, or spaghetti)
11 oz. / 320 g marinated Feta (I used store-bought, but it’s easy to make at home)
1 tbsp. / 7 g freshly cracked black pepper, plus some for finishing (one recipe recommends 30 turns of the pepper mill at the coarsest setting)
1 cup / 250 ml pasta water, reserved
salt, if needed (between the salted pasta water and the saltiness of the Feta, I didn’t add any other salt)

DIRECTIONS
Make marinated Feta at least a day before.

Cook the pasta and drain, reserving 1 cup / 250 ml of the pasta water for later. Return drained pasta to the still-warm pot; crumble in bits of cheese, adding reserved pasta water a bit at a time to aid in the cheese melting. Combine by tossing with tongs. Add 1/3 or so of the pepper. Repeat process until cheese is melted and pepper is distributed. [NOTE: You may not need all the reserved pasta water; the sauce is intended to coat the noodles and cling to them. When you’re done serving, there should be virtually no trace of the sauce left behind, unlike with a marinara sauce.] Transfer pasta to bowl or plate; finish with a bit more ground pepper.

Serves 4 generously.

*[Why it’s not “formaggio e pepe” is a mystery to me. Perhaps someone fluent in Italian can lend a hand here.]

Soupe de la Semaine: Chicken Noodle Soup with Basil and Spinach

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The Warhol print was probably tastier.

I realize that I tool on Campbell’s soups a lot — probably more than they deserve, especially since I am descended from Campbells on my Mom’s side (not particularly unusual for someone of Scots heritage). And while Clan Campbell were a prolific lot, it’s likely far more Campbell has passed through my alimentary canal than was ever in my bloodline.

In my youth, their ubiquitous cans were a staple in our pantry. I was especially keen on Scotch Broth, Vegetable Beef, and Beef with Vegetables and Barley. I NEVER liked their Chicken Noodle, since it always got served to me when I was sick. The association has stuck for decades. But in a strange twist of fate, I find myself making soups for an ill friend, so I decided to revisit my childhood chicken soup trauma.

There’s nothing wrong with chicken in soup; Tom Kha Gai is an all-time favourite. And Mexican chicken soups aplenty with tomato and chili and cilantro show up happily, and not infrequently, at table. But my challenge was to attempt to concoct something that was at once chicken noodle soup and not chicken noodle soup. A Zen kōan of a soup, so to speak. In order to achieve this aim, I needed to isolate those elements of trad North American chicken noodle soup that failed to delight me, and simply Marie Kondo them away.

ISSUE #1: The Broth
Typical canned chicken noodle soup features a briny broth with no more point of view than a real estate agent trying to sell you a house. I wanted a stock that would echo our more trad notions wthout being shackled to them.

ISSUE #2: Carrots
Love me carrots, I really do. But not here. There’s a reason Billy Connolly developed a routine based around how, when you regurgitate, there’s always “diced bloody carrots in it.”

ISSUE #3: Celery
Celery in commercial canned soups frequently develops a revolting, slightly slimy texture, and it played an outsize role in the sense-memory flavour of my canned nemesis. I could have opted for celery seed, but I really didn’t want the texture or the taste.

ISSUE #4: The Noodle
Nobody wants a limp noodle. Typically, they look like tiny tapeworms, they have zero toothiness, they shame the marriage of water, flour, and egg. My noodle was going to be strong and proud.

ISSUE #5: The Chicken
This will sound like the proverbial deli diner’s complaint that the food wasn’t good and the portions were too small. But the industrially processed 6mm chicken bit cubes were virtually flavourless, and distributed very sparingly. Hey, I get it — chicken is the soup’s most expensive ingredient, and more chicken = less profit. I responded by loading the pot up with about three pounds (1.5 kilos) of hand shredded boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

But enough of what I didn’t want. Here’s what I did want: simple, healthy (after all, I’m feeding a cancer slayer here), and tasty. I don’t know how you go about planning your recipes (other than having the good fortune to land here, for which I am grateful), but I typically overthink. I read books, I go online, I consult my bride, I mentally review every version of the dish I’ve ever ingested, I engage in an internal Socratic dialogue, I ask friends about their preferences, I fuss.

While in the store buying chicken, I came across a special on fresh basil. The die was cast: green stock. I also had some spinach powder in my pantry, which I suspected would complement the basil, as well as providing an excellent source of beta-carotene and iron. Besides, spinach made Popeye strong, and the Big C is more formidable a foe than Brutus (or, if I might betray my age, Bluto), so bring it on. [You can use regular spinach if you want; I just wanted to play with my new toy. This spinach powder is nothing more than dehydrated fresh spinach ground into green dust. No additives.]

One caveat: the fewer the ingredients, the better each one has to be. Because I had no homemade chicken stock, I used the best commercial stock money can buy. Free range chicken. Wine and olive oil I would proudly serve at table, not hide in the kitchen. Durum semolina pasta from Italy (even if I will use a different shape next time). Of course you can economise (if you have the time and the freezer space, you can save plenty on the stock by making your own), but even in my extravagance this is still cheaper per serving than what you’d probably pay for a bowl at a restaurant.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil (I used Olea Farm Garlic Blush)
3 lbs. / 1.5 kg boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 10)
sea salt and pepper for seasoning chicken
2/3 cup / 150 ml dry white or rosé wine for deglazing (water or chicken stock work also)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 oz. / 115 g fresh basil, shredded or chopped (reserve about 10-15 leaves for garnish)
3 liters / 12 cups good quality chicken stock (I used Aneto Low-Sodium Chicken Stock)
1/4 cup / 60 g spinach powder (or 4 oz. / 115 g fresh spinach, shredded or chopped)
16 oz. / 454 g dried pasta, cooked separately (I used casarecci, but next time it will be gemelli, ciocchetti, or gigli)
2 tbsp. /35 ml / juice of one fresh-squeezed lemon (I plucked a fresh Meyer from our tree)
OPTIONAL: Shaved or grated Parmesan cheese for garnish.

DIRECTIONS
Cook the pasta and set aside. [You can even undercook it a bit, in fact, given that it will swim in the broth later. Dealer’s choice.] One piece of advice that has served me well is that the pasta water should be as salty as the sea. This, and seasoning the chicken well, meant the recipe required no additional salt.

♫ Brown the chicken in the pot, doo-dah, doo-dah. ♫

Season your chicken liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. In your soup pot, drizzle in about 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 ml) of olive oil, and cook the chicken. Depending on the thickness of the thighs, and the heat of your range top, this should take about 15 minutes. You’re looking for a little browning on the outside, but this is not intended to be fried chicken soup. When the chicken is done (I had to do mine in two batches), remove it to a plate.

What’s left after the chicken cooks is called the fond, and not just because I’m fond of it. When you deglaze the pot, the browned bits will transform into a very tasty sauce.

While the chicken is frying, dice the onion and chop the basil (and spinach, if not using powder), reserving a few basil leaves for later garnish. Afer removing chicken from soup pot, deglaze the pot with some wine or other liquid, then sweat the onion until it turns translucent. Add chopped basil, chicken stock, spinach powder (or chopped spinach), and reserved chicken thighs (including the juices that accumulated on the plate they sat on). Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour to 45 minutes or so (plenty of room for error here without any harm).

After the first simmer, remove chicken (again! It keeps jumping in and out, doesn’t it?) and set aside. Allow chicken to cool sufficiently so it can be hand shredded (or chopped, if you must).

OPTIONAL STEP: Remove most of the solids (basil and onion) with a slotted spoon and process in a blender or food processor with a little of the cooking liquid. Alternatively, you could use an immersion blender. This will thicken the liquid slightly.

Return shredded chicken to soup and add cooked noodles. Simmer long enough to warm the noodles, at least 15 minutes. Add lemon juice a few minutes before serving, to brighten and balance the flavour. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.

Soup. Mmmm-mmmm-good.

Ladle into bowls, and garnish with chiffonaded basil leaves.

Curried Chickpea Smash [Vegan]

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It takes all my will to keep from eating it directly from the bowl.

Total dishes dirtied in the course of making this recipe: 1. [Plus five utensils: the can opener, potato masher, knife, fork, and measuring spoon. Oh, and I had to clean off the cutting board that lives on top of the right-hand sink.] That in itself gives this recipe a warm place in my heart.

Big ups to Jessica Prescott, from whose book Vegan Goodness: Delicious Plant-Based Recipes That Can Be Enjoyed Everyday this recipe was adapted. Further thanks to Deb Lindsey and Joe Yonan of the Washington Post, the former for making it look appetizing enough to try, and the latter for testing the recipe so I could goof with it in my own kitchen.

This takes literally about 10 minutes to pull together, even if your knife skills are as poor as mine, and it packs a wallop, taste-wise. Also, if you prefer to make this with garbanzo beans rather than chickpeas, they are an acceptable substitute.*

Curried Chickpea Smash
makes four sandwiches

INGREDIENTS

    1½ cups (one 15-ounce / 425 g can) chickpeas, drained (save the aquafaba!) and rinsed
    Flesh of 1 large ripe avocado, mashed
    2 tsp. / 10 ml extra-virgin olive oil
    2 tablespoons / 30 ml fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
    ¼-½ cup / 40-75 g finely minced red onion
    4 baby dill pickles, finely chopped (about ½ cup / 71.5 g)
    ¼-½ cup / 15-25 g finely chopped fresh cilantro/coriander (or fresh parsley)
    2 tablespoons / 13 g curry powder
    ½ tsp. / 3 g kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
    ½ tsp. / 1 g finely ground black pepper, or more to taste
    About ½ cup / 115 g lightly packed baby spinach leaves
    4 hamburger-bun-size rolls (or 8 slices of bread), toasted; or several slices of pita bread, cut into wedges for dipping

[NOTE: The amount of onion and/or coriander can vary widely according to taste. I like mine with a little more kick, which is why I go to the high end of the recommendation. Also, I use twice as much curry powder as was in the original recipe, I think partly due to my palate and the fact that my jar of curry powder has a little age on it and may have mellowed. To me, the main bar to clear is finding the right bread-to-filling ratio. If the bun is too big relative to its surface area (like a slider bun), you’ll have too much bread. On the other hand, if you toast regular sandwich bread, you need to go a little light on the filling for structure’s sake. Believe me, it’s a fun problem to have to work out.]

Next time, homemade bread.

DIRECTIONS

Combine the chickpeas, oil, and lemon juice in a medium bowl or flat bottomed storage container such as the one pictured at top. Smash with a potato masher or fork until fairly chunky (try to leave no chickpea whole). Stir in the avocado, minced onion, pickles, cilantro/coriander, curry powder, salt, and pepper. [If you are using this as a dip for pita, chop the spinach and mix it in; otherwise, reserve it for the sandwich building, directions to follow.] Taste, and adjust spices as needed (I often add more lemon juice and/or olive oil to keep it from being too dry, especially if I’m using it as a dip rather than a sandwich filling).

If you’re not using this as a dip for pita bread, place a few baby spinach leaves on the bottom halves of the toasted rolls (or bread) and top with the chickpea salad. Top with the remaining halves of the rolls/bread, and slice in half if the resulting sandwich seems unwieldy.

*Chickpeas and garbanzo beans are the same thing. That was a joke.

We Be Jammin’ (Specifically, Strawberry Balsamic Jam with Black Pepper)

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Itty bitty jars of sweet and savory goodness.

Itty bitty jars of sweet and savory goodness.

Ah, the joys of ADHD. I had planned on making a strawberry-cherry pie, then strawberry-rhubarb tarts, but when the steam had settled, my two pounds of luscious Driscoll strawberries found their way into a jam. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of strawberry jam, because it tends to be both a little sweet and a little insipid for my taste, but I came across several recipes for a strawberry balsamic jam, and then the vision of serving it with an aged white Canadian Cheddar kicked in — no, wait; goat cheese! or maybe a stinky Roquefort! (see what I mean about the ADHD?) — so I committed to making a small batch.

Six ingredients. Six. No added pectin. Comparatively speaking, a fair amount of work for six four-ounce (118 ml) jars, but highly satisfying, especially when you give them away as gifts to a grateful palate (even if it’s your own).

STRAWBERRY BALSAMIC JAM (makes six 4 oz./118 ml jars)
Ingredients
2 lb./1 kg fresh strawberries
3 tbsp/45 ml lemon juice (fresh-squeezed, if you can get it)
1.5 cups/300 g granulated white sugar
4 tbsp/60 ml balsamic vinegar
1 tsp/5 g sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 tsp/1-2 g freshly ground black pepper

Berries and sugar, macerating nicely.

Berries and sugar, macerating nicely.

Rinse and hull strawberries. Place in a bowl with sugar and let sit for at least 1-2 hours (or overnight, if it’s convenient), mashing the strawberries after about 10-20 minutes.

Berries and sugar, all mashed up.

Berries and sugar, all mashed up.

Meanwhile, prepare jars and lids (which is to say, throw them in boiling water for a minimum of 10 minutes). [You have the option of making this a refrigerator jam if you don’t care to do the whole home canning thing; strictly up to you. I chose to preserve the preserve in the traditional manner. Otherwise, be sure to use it up within about 10 days.]

It may not be quick, but it does get thick.

It may not be quick, but it does get thick.

Place the strawberry and sugar slurry in a non-reactive saucepan, add the lemon juice, and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until jam is at the jell stage, stirring frequently and watching at least semi-observantly. [For me, this was about 45 minutes, but your pan and stove may bring about a different result, timewise; one of the recipes I read said you could get there in 30 minutes.] Add the balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper the last five minutes of cooking, stirring continuously. Remove the pan from heat.

Jam and a few spare jars.

Jam and a few spare jars.

Pour jam into hot, prepared jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Refrigerate immediately or seal and process jars for 10 minutes in a water bath canner. If processing in water bath, remove and let jars sit for 24 hours, ensuring a good seal. Remove bands and store for up to one year… if you think you can wait that long before finishing it all off.

Boiling, but not mad.

Boiling, but not mad.

[Thanks to my pal Susan Park for the suggestion of adding the salt; it cuts the sweetness nicely, and plays well with both the strawberries and the vinegar. And thanks to my cousin Sheryl for the gorgeous cutting board that served as a tray for the jars.]