Archive for December, 2010

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Delicious heresy

December 22, 2010

It’s winter now, officially, and it’s cold and dark and there’s a lot of cold, wet snow left from two days ago, with more on the way. I’m working abnormally long hours this week because the sixth grade has their chorus concerts right after break, so I’m playing for lots more of those classes than usual, plus my usual 15 or so piano lessons. Furthermore, Jacob’s been gone since Sunday night, gone home to his family in Virginia for a couple of weeks. All this can mean only one thing: it is time to eat pancetta.

Jacob is Jewish, and though he doesn’t keep strictly kosher — he eats cheeseburgers, for instance — he does not eat shellfish or pork. I’m sure he doesn’t care whether I do, but I’m not going to spend time cooking a meal he can’t eat, so I mainly don’t eat much of those things either, not even in restaurants, because it seems unfriendly. (When I bought mussels for lunch, he was in rehearsal all day.) Don’t feel too sorry for me — I indulged in some lobster mac-and-cheese while shopping in Maine with my mom this weekend, and in New York the weekend before, I had shrimp in spicy red sauce at a Cuban place and pizza with guanciale at Roberta’s. I ate pulled-pork sandwiches whenever they appeared on the Weathervane buffet table. I do okay, really. But only when I’m alone in the apartment do I cook such things for myself.

My go-to pork-product indulgence, especially in winter, is crispy pancetta stirred into tomato sauce to make a sort of simplified pasta all’amatriciana. I’ve only had amatriciana once, in a North End eatery called Cibo (since replaced by a new place called Panza, possibly with the same owners, and a lot of the Cibo menu still intact). It was a bitterly cold, windy night, I was visiting a friend on Hanover Street, and she suggested dinner there. I remember the warmth of the place, even though we were seated close to the door; the friendliness of the host, who may also have been the owner; and the rich, satisfying flavors of that pasta dish. Of course, now that I’ve read a bit more about it, I realize purists would probably scoff at the meal I had that night; its plum-tomato sauce was laced with pancetta, not the traditional guanciale, and fontina. And an old menu I found online indicates it had eggplant, too. Heresy. But you know what? That was some delicious pasta.

The version I make at home commits the double sin of incorporating nonstandard ingredients (garlic is disputed and mushrooms unheard-of) and jarred sauce. Sure, you could make the sauce from scratch, and I probably will sometime. But for now, this is fast, easy comfort food, the perfect remedy for late December. I wouldn’t serve it to an Italian. To date I haven’t served it to anyone, actually. But I think my mother would like it.

Tomato Sauce with Pancetta and Mushrooms

Serves 2 smallish appetites.

2 oz. pancetta, cubed

2 cloves garlic, sliced

6 oz. button or cremini mushrooms, sliced

a couple good shakes of red pepper flakes

1-2 cups tomato sauce, jarred or homemade (I like Trader Joe’s roasted garlic marinara)

pasta of choice

Parmesan/pecorino/whatever for grating on top

1. Cook pancetta in a skillet over medium heat until it’s slightly crispy and most of the fat has rendered out.

2. Push pancetta to one side of pan. Add garlic and cook until golden. Add red pepper flakes, mushrooms, and a little olive oil if needed; cook until mushrooms are tender.

3. Stir in tomato sauce, reduce heat, and cook until warmed through.

4. Serve with pasta, ideally something short and textured to catch the pancetta bits. I like tricolor rotini, because everything’s more fun when it comes in three colors.

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Turkey and treasure hunting (minus the turkey)

December 4, 2010

Every year since college, I’ve spent Thanksgiving with a group of my mostly-vegetarian Oberlin friends. Our families aren’t nuts about this, but I for one live 40 minutes from my parents and see them about once a week, so I don’t feel too guilty about missing this one holiday. And I care far less about missing out on the turkey; give me can-shaped cranberry sauce or give me death, but you can keep the actual bird.

The first year some of us drove back to Ohio and cooked dinner in the galley kitchen of John’s on-campus studio apartment, potatoes and stuffing fighting for burner space while my pumpkin flans jostled around in the oven. The year after that we ate in my Jamaica Plain apartment, and since Karen the meat-loving opera singer came that year, the two of us roasted a chicken stuffed with garlic and lemon slices. Another two or three Thanksgivings happened in that apartment; Caroline introduced me to green-bean casserole; Tofurkey and chicken were replaced by Quorn (better texture) and deviled eggs (vegetarian-friendly and 50s-housewife-approved!). We stayed up til 3 playing Katamari Damacy while we waited with John for his early-morning taxi ride to the airport. We had a pirate-themed Thanksgiving in which bandannas were worn, Seafarers of Catan was played, and grog was consumed, though somewhat reluctantly, since it doesn’t actually taste a lot better than it sounds. We had Monty Python Thanksgiving, in which we watched a lot of Flying Circus, played Monty Python Fluxx, and ate Manchego (because you can buy it in a cheese shop, and it’s from Spain, and NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition).

We didn’t have a theme this year. And we cooked and ate at Corbin and Alaina’s (as we did last year), since Quincy is not so convenient and my kitchen is small. I made a pumpkin pie and a cranberry tart at home, and I brought a pound and a half of Brussels sprouts to pan-sear in olive oil and top with goat Gouda; I’d thought of making a pan of roasted vegetables too, but allowed myself to be convinced we didn’t need that much food. True: there was plenty to eat, what with creamy mashed potatoes and “crash potatoes”, cornbread-and-veggie-sausage stuffing, green beans with lemon and Parmesan, and, yes, deviled eggs and can-shaped cranberry sauce. And crescent rolls. No orange vegetables, alas, except the pumpkin pie, but that just means I’ve got a butternut squash and some sweet potatoes hanging out in my pantry until further notice.

We played a game called Talisman, which is rather long and complicated, and it’s the kind of game where if you start out behind, you might be behind for a very long time. Like the whole game. Maybe that’s just me, though, or maybe that’s just what it’s like when you play with six people, none of whom are totally sure of what they’re doing.

In other news, dessert! This is your standard pumpkin pie, made from the recipe on the One-Pie can. Simple and solid, with a little extra richness from molasses. And the cranberry tart, which is way too much work for everyday but nice to bring out when I feel like being impressive. (Note: I couldn’t justify spending 6.99 for the stipulated vanilla bean, so I used 2 tsp. vanilla extract, and I don’t think it was noticeably worse.) It’s a Food and Wine recipe, and the shell and filling require a bunch of steps (mix dough, chill dough, roll dough, chill dough, bake shell, make filling, bake again, let cool), but the cranberry topping is ridiculously easy – you just boil some cranberries in water and sugar for about 5 minutes, until they burst – and is also great on waffles, especially pumpkin waffles. Or ice cream. Or waffles AND ice cream.

Later in the weekend, I went geocaching for the first time, along with Caroline, John, and Jacob. Caroline looked up a spot in nearby Franklin Park, which I had often driven by but never entered, and was pleasantly surprised by – it seems a lot more wilderness-y than the Arboretum, with unpaved side paths and some nice crags to clamber around on, and plenty of little caverns that looked just perfect for hiding treasure.

Mostly they just hid leaves and the occasional Heineken bottle. But eventually we hit the jackpot, a hollow tree that we’d spent plenty of time regarding suspiciously, though it took Caroline’s characteristic persistence to discover the little ledge inside where the cache lay. I reached my hand into the space and pulled out a yellow Tupperware box containing a log of previous finders, a pink plastic kazoo, and a gnome figurine in a Ziploc bag.

A note explained that the gnome’s name was Chad and he wanted to travel overseas; fortunately Caroline’s visiting India soon, so she pocketed Chad and replaced him with a metal turtle charm she’d brought from Michigan. (For those unfamiliar with geocaching, these knickknacks are called “travel bugs,” and each comes with a numbered tag so you can track their progress as they hop from cache to cache.)

We walked back; more games were played, more food eaten, including a huge, moist pear-cherry scone from Canto 6, which I highly recommend, especially if you’ve just been trekking around Franklin Park on a cold day. And I got a couple of exciting phone calls, one asking me to substitute-music direct a weekend of Seussical for a theater I worked with last fall, and another offering me a job music directing Spelling Bee this spring, which I’d interviewed for in early October, never heard back, and had pretty much written off as not going to happen. AND then this week, my friend Tom asked me to play second keyboard for the production of Ragtime he’s MDing later in the spring. So in four days, I went from having no shows on the horizon, to three. I feel extravagantly provided for and seriously thankful.