Last week all activity, time, gravity and other forces in the universe moved toward one moment – the wedding of Kathleen Slavish and David Brand. This involved a spectacular gathering of family and friends, a nuptial Mass celebrated by two beloved priests (Fathers Duch and Wilt), and a rousing reception at the Field Club. No couple, not even the beautiful and accomplished Kathleen and David could ask for a better start.
And now, to turn to more common things . . .
Monday: Heirloom Tomato Soup with Tibetan Flat Bread
Tuesday: Philadelphia trip
Wednesday: Pantry Pasta with salad
Three Pretty Girls at Dave and Katies – Julie, Hilda, Beez
Thursday: Party for Kathleen and David at Katie and Dave’s
Friday: Cod with Olive-Tomato Crust, Seared Broccoli
Saturday: Kathleen’s wedding
Dick Greenbaum and Hilly Spence – brunch at Casa Stewarti
Sunday: Brunch: Frittata with Merguez and Toast and Scrapple
Dinner: Pizza with dressed Arugula
I’m increasingly annoyed (I try not to show it, but apparently the scowling and eye-rolling give me away) by people who say – “I don’t really have the time to cook. Maybe when I retire I’ll get into it.” Well, honey, if you wait that long to stop dining out or eating take-out, cooking may be the only thing you’ll be able to get into. So why not forget television or Netflix a few nights a week and see if the quality of the food, the camaraderie, the challenge and accomplishment of making dinner, the superior taste, and the reduced calorie count don’t hook you on the idea of cooking for yourself.
We have relied on Jacques Pépin’s cookbooks to feed ourselves, family and friends for many years and, because of work and play schedules, his More Fast Food My Way is a favorite. Pépin’s idea is to use the supermarket (pre-washed greens, butchered, skinned, de-boned meats – even pre-cooked rotisserie chickens) as you mise-en-place.* That, along with a few common-sense techniques and organization (parboiling potatoes and green beans for Salade Niçoise? – cook the potatoes first, since they must start in cold water, than use that water to blanch the beans) and some useful equipment (sharp knives, an immersion blender . . . ) will help you produce good food with minimum effort. But it still takes effort and, like all successful effort, will make you feel better, teach you something, and begin to reduce the tens of thousands of years you have been assigned to purgatory for not cooking your own food all this time.
‘Preparation’ (literally, putting-in-place) – all the time-consuming, repetitive preparation that restaurants spend all day doing so that when you come in and order a piece of fish, the chef has only to reach for the pre-sliced shallots, room temperature butter and prepared herbs and, voilà, in 5 or 10 minutes, your dinner is cooked. Mise-en-place is the key to hosting homicide-free holiday dinners and parties for friends. Do as much as you possibly can ahead of time. Many dishes are even better when reheated. (Some, of course, are not, and to serve re-heated fish or fries will earn you one hundred and two thousand years in purgatory. “It’s always something,” as Roseanne Rosannadana used to say.)
One final grace note: If you learn a few of Pépin’s recipes by heart, when friends who have dropped by for a cocktail linger, because the conversation is so good, you will easily do the right thing – which is to invite them to stay for dinner. And you will be able to produce a meal to be proud of.
One of the recipes below (Tibetan Flat Bread) is just such a recipe from Pépin, the other is a recipe Pépin would have gladly made room for in his book: ‘Pantry Pasta’. Moreover, with those two and a salad of dressed greens, you’ll have a meal fit for any guest, including Sophia Loren whom I have invited over for cocktails every Friday for the last 55 years. I think she might actually show up this week.
The extra – also from Jacques – is the simplest, tastiest cooked fish possible. If you have a fish monger who will take the trouble to give you equally shaped and sized fillets, this simple preparation can even look elegant. You can’t of course, keep fish on hand, but you can pick up some fillets on the way home and then you’re rolling.
Tibetan Flat Bread (from Jacques Pépin’s More Fast Food My Way – do yourself a favor, buy the book, you will use it regularly)
“Food from Tibet is odd,” you say? Well, based on this recipe, I’d say that Tibetan cooking is as American as apple pie.
Supplies: (enough bread for five or six people as a side to soup or a salad)
1 ½ Cups All-purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon baking powder
1/3 Teaspoon salt
1 Cup water, plus 2 or so tablespoons for steaming the bread
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Timing: 20 minutes – tops
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add 1 Cup of water and mix with a rubber spatula to create a thick, gooey dough.
Spread the oil in a cold 12-inch non-stick skillet. Add the dough and, after dipping the spatula into the oil in the skillet, use it to press on the dough to flatten it. (The oil prevents the dough from sticking to the spatula.)
Add about 2 Tablespoons of water to create some steam. Cover and place over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. At this point the water should be gone – cook it longer, if not – and the dough should be frying.
Reduce the heat, turn the bread over with a fork and cover and cook for another 5 minutes or so.
Uncover and set aside to cool, then cut into wedges and serve.
There is something deeply satisfying to me in using left-over vegetables, jars from the pantry and other items at hand to create a good dinner. Obviously, you can substitute, add or subtract ingredients. Any type of pasta will do, and any ingredients that work for your palate. Tomatoes are a great ingredient because they add acid, sugar and a taste compatible with most other ingredients. A grated hard cheese will add some earthy salt. Parsley has a sharp, herbal taste or you can use the smokier taste of basil – both add good color. But use your imagination and your pantry – that’s the idea.
Here is the version we cooked last week, as far as I can remember:
20 minutes, plus the time it takes to cook the pasta – (10 minutes to brown sausage, 5 minutes to chop onions, Pit olives, etc., 7 minutes to finish pasta in sauce, plate)
Supplies: For 4 – 6
Box of pasta – we used 16 oz. of spaghetti
Things we added in:
3 Italian sweet sausages – removed from casings and broken up (I would have preferred hot – but the idea here is to use what you have available)
Pitted olives – we had a jar of Castelveltanto – a mild, meaty green olive. Large, pitted black olives would work well here. You can use briny green, or oil-cured, but their taste will tend to take over the dish.
Tomatoes: We had a can of cherry tomatoes, but you could use fresh cherry tomatoes halved, or cut up larger tomatoes.
Peppers – Fresh Cubanelle (chopped) would have been great – we cut up some pepperoncini and tossed them in. They added a bit of heat and pickle to the dish.
Herbs: We used basil. Parsley would work well
Cheese: Grated parmigiana or pecorino (1/2 Cup or more)
Salt and Pepper (we should have added a pinch of red pepper flakes – I did as a top dressing on my plate)
Pit olives, if necessary – ¼ to ½ Cup
Chop onions, Chop peppers, Chop parsley or pull leaves from basil – about ½ Cup
Bring a pot of salted water to a strong boil, meanwhile . . .
Heat olive oil in a large skill (enough to coat the skillet and a bit more) over medium plus heat. When oil begins to shimmer add sausage and cook until browned, breaking it up into small pieces. Spoon cooked sausage onto a plate lined with a paper towel. Lower heat and add onions, and fresh peppers, if using, then, after they start to cook, add olives. You want to soften the onions – cook for about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and increase heat, stirring and squashing the tomatoes a bit, until you have a thick sauce. This will not take 5 minutes – 2 to 3 probably.
Cook the pasta during or after the last bit of sauce making for about 5 minutes less than recommended cooking time.
Before draining the pasta put two large ladles full of the pasta water (1 cup plus) into a bowl.
Turn the burner under the skillet back on, if you’ve turned it off. Place the drained pasta into the skillet with the sauce, add a ladle full of the pasta water and toss until the pasta is well-coated and cooked to al dente (or how you like it) – 3 – 5 minutes more. (Add more pasta water if needed to loosen).
Now add sausage, pepperoncini and a good wallop of the grated cheese. You can add a tablespoon or so of butter at this point – it makes for a silkier sauce, but is not necessary.
Off the heat, add in the herbs (chiffonade or tear the basil at this point, if using, and add).
Serve with more grated cheese and olive oil on the side.
Cod in Olive and Tomato Crust
(from Jacques Pépin’s More Fast Food My Way)
The taste of this dish is superior. As so often in cooking, simple and quick beats complicated on time-consuming.
Timing: 10 minutes tops
Supplies: For 4
½ Cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained
½ Cup pitted black olives (I would use the bland, large black olives here – not oil-cured)
2 Tablespoons grated parmigiano
4 Cod loin fillets (about 6 oz. each)*
Salt and pepper
* Note: If you want to serve this at a dinner party, you’ll want to ask the fish-monger for fillets of equal length and thickness. The loin is thicker at one end than the other, so the fillets will have to be cut from more than one loin.
Preheat your broiler
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil
Cut the tomatoes into pieces and process with the olives and the cheese into a rough puree that clumps together.
Rub the fillets with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then arrange them on the baking sheet, making sure there is space between them.
Cover the fillets with the tomato-olive paste and slide them under the broiler on a grate you have placed 4 inches from the broiler flame.
Broil for about 5 minutes.
Garnish with chopped parsley and serve. A little olive oil to drizzle at the table, would be perfect.