Pasta

When I was a kid, my mom (and aunts and grandmas and neighbors) used macaroni as “the other pasta;” that is, other than “spaghetti,” translated as spaghetti noodles with tomato sauce.

Gone are the days when macaroni was used almost exclusively in the average American kitchen, from mac and cheese to pseudo goulash (a combination of ground beef, canned tomato sauce, cheese, and macaroni, which was really very good), to grade-school art on cardboard or a can spray-painted gold to pass as a pencil holder. Macaroni has its place in the middle of the pasta alphabet; there are many varieties before and after!

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Pasta is as versatile as the sauces and dressings to be made for it. The number of pasta shapes and sizes defy imagination. The shapes come in “minis” too, sort of like our favorite cartoon characters that have been reduced—with all their idiosyncrasies intact— to babies. Baby Mickey, Baby Kermit, Baby Goofy. Miniature penne, fusilli, ziti. Dry pasta is a mainstay in many a kitchen because it has a long shelf life. Tightly wrapped or kept in airtight containers, dry pasta can be stored for years, if necessary.

I tried to replicate a 4-cheese ziti dish I had at a restaurant. I inadvertently picked up mini-ziti instead of the bigger variety at the grocery store. No matter, the cheese dish turned out well; perhaps not as creamy as the one at the restaurant, but good nonetheless. I had half a pound of leftover cooked mini-ziti so I made an impromptu salad with it:  I added halved grape tomatoes, a few sliced green olives with pimentos, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and a dash of extra virgin olive oil. It was light, and fresh. Although the pasta was already cooked and cooled, the other ingredients could easily have been tossed with hot pasta and served as a side dish.

A former co-worker once told me how her grandmother made mashed potatoes mixed with cooked noodles as a side dish for pork chops. She said it was very good. It was served with gravy.

I don’t have that recipe. A bit of overkill to me. I’m content to leave it as her memory.

 

Simple Tomato Sauce for Pasta

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ingredients for simple tomato sauce

3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced

1/2 yellow onion, chopped medium dice

Vegetable oil, such as canola, or olive oil

One 28-oz can whole tomatoes in sauce or juice, hand squashed, mashed, blended, if desired—dependent on how you like your tomatoes*

Salt and pepper

Pinch of sugar

Water, heated, to keep sauce from sticking

Pepper flakes if desired. Optional

Sauté the onions in the oil until softened, or if you like, cook longer over medium heat until golden brown and caramelized. I usually just cook them till they’re soft, and beginning to brown, 5–7 minutes. Stir occasionally to brown evenly.

Add garlic and cook 30 seconds to a minute, stirring.

Carefully stir in tomatoes, squashed or otherwise. They’ll splatter all over if you aren’t a bit slow about it. Stir, bringing it to a boil and adding a little hot water (1/2 cup). Reduce heat if necessary to keep it from spattering all over (hard to do anyway, but you can prevent some of it) to a simmer and cook for about 1/2 an hour, stirring and adding water or wine, a bit at a time, to keep the sauce from scorching.

Meanwhile cook pasta of choice in boiling salted water. Some cooks, including Italian cooks, say not to let the water boil but simmer. Any way you do it, cook it to al dente if adding to the sauce to cook a bit more, or softer if you like it that way or are topping it with the sauce.

Pasta water can be added to the sauce to keep it from scorching. Not too much, you want the sauce to be a bit on the thick side, and flavorful, not watered down. Add salt and pepper to taste at the last 10 minutes, and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes are acidy or a little bitter.

Sometimes I add pepper flakes with the onions before adding the tomatoes. Or sprinkle them in at the last.

Serve sauce over cooked pasta, or add the pasta to the sauce to coat then serve. Parmesan cheese and additional black pepper is always a lovely topping.

I also like to add cooked sliced Italian sausage to this for variation.

*I like my tomato sauce more smooth than chunky, but the whole tomatoes have better flavor than those that have been pureed or sauced or diced. So I process them for the smooth texture with optimal flavor.  Unless, of course, fresh tomatoes are used. That’s the ticket!

 

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Eat Meat.

I was a vegetarian for a couple of years in high school. Not a real one: I ate yogurt, cheese, butter and eggs. As well as salads and bread.

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I quit that gig when I was visiting my great aunt in Sacramento. She cooked steaks for dinner once, for everyone except me, the vegetarian (an idea she and my grandma scoffed at). For me, she sautéed onions in the grease from the steaks and put them on a hamburger bun. I could taste that savory deliciousness in every bite. I didn’t say a word about this blunder of vegetarian ignorance — after all, she did fix something special for me to acquiesce to my food preferences.

Yeah, that killed that ruse. I love meat. Not the stuff you kill to eat. The kind that comes in packages from the grocery store.

Just to be clear.

Steaks, sausages (most kinds that I’ve been exposed to), bacon (although not to the degree of the current national obsession), pork chops (even if fried to crispy dryness like my Grandma used to make), ribs —I love ribs! Pork or beef, or pork AND beef—, ground beef if done interestingly, ham … are all on my list of Yes, Please! — when done well, but not well-done. Although ribs are good with a little burn on them.

Roasted chicken is the best. Yum. I could eat chicken (which I can cook to a degree — no pun intended) five times a week. Okay, maybe three. I love it. Turkey is good once in a while as long as it’s the dark meat, but chicken is so much better. Except in the ground stage: there I prefer the mixed turkey. Chicken is soft and pale, reminiscent of what rice that has stuck to the bottom of a pan looks like after you’ve let it soak in cold water for a while. A bit maggoty.

Both chicken and turkey, white or dark meat, make excellent sandwiches. Plain with some real butter, salt and pepper — or loaded with mayo, mustard, lettuce. Okay that’s not really loaded but I don’t like too much on those sandwiches. Home-baked white is my bread preference, if available. I’ve been known to make a loaf just for that purpose. Otherwise, a good many-grained organic bread is yummy too!

I don’t eat a lot of meat in all. Maybe a little each day. Since I can’t cook steaks or any other beef that doesn’t require braising, we eat ground beef or chicken a lot. Hot dogs.

Now pork tenderloin I can cook to perfection, for some reason. Other cuts of pork — besides bacon — not so much. Seems my taste for overcooked greasy pork chops is in the minority. So, I have to rely on others (chefs in restaurants) for my “real” meat fix — meaning something that hasn’t been through a grinder and bone separator (one would hope)— although my husband grills a mean steak, and great burgers.

I can do the vegetarian for a couple of days at a time, but then I need a fix. I’m a meat girl at heart.

No pun intended.

How To Eat an Avocado

(This is a reprint from a previous blog)

How to Eat an Avocado

I love avocados. I grew up having tastes of them since my dad loved avocados too, but they were certainly not as available to us when I was growing up as they are now, so they were considered a specialty food, almost exotic… and Dad got the bulk. He would eat slices with a little mayonnaise, salt and pepper and I adopted this way of eating avocados. It’s good — if you like mayonnaise. Which I do, much more then than now.

I also like avocados sliced in an omelet, just at the end so they heat slightly. I knew a woman who made egg-and-avocado salad for sandwiches. It seems to me that the textures and even the flavors are so close as to be redundant. If that makes sense.

The first time I had guacamole I was hooked. I don’t know where or when that was, but I’ve loved it ever since. My method of making guacamole is simple: roughly mash a couple of large avocados (I like texture to my guac); add one small clove of garlic, crushed and chopped a little; a very tiny bit of minced sweet onion, maybe a teaspoon to two avocados; and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.  A pinch of  salt, and black pepper. Serve with salty crispy corn tortilla chips.

I read an article (Bonappetit.com) that said the addition of lime juice is not authentic, at least not in Mexico. Or that if it is added (said the article), they don’t use as much as we in the USA use. It cuts the richness a little and helps keep the guacamole from turning brown while leaving the creamy dreamy flavor and texture intact. Unless you let it sit too long.

I’ve heard of pouring a thin layer of olive oil over the top of the guacamole to keep it from turning brown as well. I suppose one just pours it off when ready to serve.

Sometimes I add several squirts of Tabasco or other hot chili sauce. Usually I like to leave that on the side for others to add at will.

My mother-in-law shared with me a surprisingly tasty way in which to eat avocados. She mashed a little piece, spread it on a saltine, and sprinkled a little ground black pepper over it.avocadocrackers (2)

You wouldn’t believe how good that simple little snack is!

But the very best way in which to eat avocados is to cut one in half, sprinkle liberally with salt and black pepper, and scoop out spoonfuls as if eating a melon.

That’s the way to eat an avocado.

 

Bread

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Cloverleaf rolls

Bread has to be my favorite food.

I love desserts, but bread, ahhhh . . .

I’m a big fan of butter too. Or margarine. And honey, yes lots of honey, oh and cinnamon sugar. And salami and onions, olives, cheeses, cold roast chicken, cheeses, hummus, olive oil, did I mention cheeses? Gravy. Soft boiled or fried eggs with runny yolks. Beef stew, spaghetti with a rich tomato sauce, slow-cooked pork and black beans. . .

I do not digress: these things all have a common theme. That is, they are wonderful in, on, around bread. Think of crispy flat bread, thick olive-oil crusted focaccia, soft white bread, hearty rye or wheat, a chewy bagel, a warm na’an—there are more breads than I can list in a reasonable amount of time and space!

Toasted whole wheat is tasty for soaking in soft egg yolks or to nestle a piece of roast beef and Swiss cheese in, complimented by whole-grain mustard and pickle slices. A slathering of sweet cream butter on freshly baked soft white bread makes the beginnings of an onion sandwich. Sprinkle with a little salt, a little black pepper and that’s all you need. Tear a piece of an Italian or French loaf, slice it in half, add a drizzle of olive oil, sliced tomatoes, onions, and some red wine vinegar. Maybe a chunk of salami. Wash it down with a cold dark beer…

Of course, that lists only a few of the yeast breads. Scones are short and sweet, biscuits fluffy and somewhat plain, coffeecakes redolent with cinnamon and Marion berries. Quick breads take well to butter and honey (scones); gravy and sausage (biscuits), jams, marmalades, fruit (any of the above). Corn or flour tortillas encompass meat fillings, rich with flavor and heat; cornbread is a tasty accompaniment to soups.

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Blueberry Buckle

 

My mom used to make bread daily. Rye, whole wheat, Parker house rolls, soft white loaves, yeast coffee cakes. She made crumb cakes and blueberry buckle, waffles, pancakes and biscuits–something every day. At one point, she sold bread to make extra money, thinking of a future bakery. She was also working part time in a real estate office, had four kids and a house way out in the country to take care of while my dad was gone working long days, sometimes gone a week at a time, depending on the job. Mom had to step back to rethink it all when family friends who had been buying loaves of bread regularly from her asked for a standing order of 10 loaves per month! That was just one order! Mom quit selling bread, but fortunately she didn’t quit baking it for us.

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Corn bread with butter and honey

Holiday time — Easter and Christmas — Mom could be found up early as usual, or late at night, making sweet dough to form into lovely yummy coffee cakes with apricot or other jam filling for the neighbors. We lived on a small saltwater inlet we referred to as “the bay”, and there were only a handful of people who lived out by us year-round. Five or six golden, raisin and cinnamon, or fruit-filled coffeecakes would be delivered the eve of the holiday to these  neighbors. Of course, there was always one for our family too.

Mom raised her bread with a pan of hot water in the oven, or on a rack over the wood stove. The mother of a friend of mine used to set her bread to rise by the floor registers. When we got a real furnace, I’m not sure that my mom ever did that. We always had

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First rise

dogs and cats, and kids running in and out, without much care. The floor would have been a dangerous place to put rising bread in our house!

Mom would give my siblings and me a little piece of bread dough to make our own mini-loaf or roll when she was baking. We would roll and form it, then proudly place the misshapen forms to rise on the baking pan Mom had ready for us.

Ironically, the first time I made a loaf of bread from start to finish was with an acquaintance who lived with her hippy boyfriend in a big old house in the woods. They had a great kitchen, shopped at a co-op for whole grains. The bread didn’t turn out so well, to my thought. We used whole wheat flour and wheat berries, or buck wheat. All of which makes a heavier loaf, but I still could tell from the looks and feel that we used too much flour. I tried again once I got home. I must say my loaf baking solo turned out much better. I guess I had picked up more from my mom by osmosis than I realized.

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Potato roll

Still my bread has never been as good as hers. Mostly because she was a great baker, possibly because there is a little nostalgia in there of childhood in a warm kitchen with the baking smells and textures part of our everyday life.

I could go on describing the sensuality and earthiness, finesse and sophistication of breads, depending on what kind, but it’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself. Baking yeast breads gives a warm, grounded feeling of good will; making pastries and waffles says “you’re home.”

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Sour cream coffee cake