Thursday, January 20, 2011


We’re are the beginning of 2011 and most of us have staggered away from the orgy of Christmas cooking that overtakes us during the holidays.  Most convenience-centered cooking flies right out of the window as we ambitiously prepare the time-consuming dishes we love.  In our modern age, once the carnage of the holidays is past, the need to get real sends us back to reality.  I’ve always been a big fan of quality short-cut or fast-cooking.  For me it started with The 60-Minute Gourmet cookbooks by Pierre Franey some thirty years ago, but the genre has been extended and polished. Jacques Pepin, Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart and many others have been slicing away at the time it takes to put a meal on the table:  30-minutes, 20-minutes, 15-minutes.  But there are others that are looking to be very selective about what short-cuts they will take while still delivering convenience and good taste, Sara Moulton accomplished this in her recently published Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.  Pam Anderson is the latest to capture my imagination, and her work deserves to be in every one's kitchen.  This review was originally written by my guest reviewer, Jennifer McCord and then I made one of the recipes from the book and decided that we both would weigh in on it.

Cassoulet-Style Italian Sausages and White Beans

We recently looked through PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS: All You Need for Easy Get-Togethers (Hougton Miffin Harcourt; $32.00) by Pam Anderson, food columnist for USA Weekend, and the author of a number of bestselling cookbooks. Anderson’s latest has numerous kinds of one-dish recipes in a number of categories, including Stews for All Seasons, Worldly Casseroles, Roasting Pan Complete, Big Summer Salads and Grilled Platters.  The author’s introduction explains how the idea was planted for this book. She was teaching a cooking class and an attendee raised her hand and said "I can make one dish just fine, but when I have to orchestrate the rest of the meal so it all comes out at just the right time, I get flustered." Anderson insists "that a memorable meal can be as simple as bringing out one beautifully complete dish at a time." She shows how to do this on a video that can be found when you search for the book on  Here Anderson puts together a Cassoulet-Style Italian Sausages and White Beans casserole in record-breaking time without breaking a sweat.  In a large roasting pan, she combines Italian sweet sausage links, cherry tomatoes, one chopped onion, sliced garlic cloves, extra-virgin olive oil, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, some dried thyme, bay leaves, salt and freshly ground pepper, which she roasts in the oven. Ten minutes before the dish comes out of the oven, she adds a few cans of white beans and the dish is complete.  You could sprinkle fresh bead crumbs toasted in some butter for a final touch, she suggests, but it’s an extra bit, and not part of the recipe.  Fast, flavorful food doesn’t get any easier than this.

The meal Jennifer and her husband, Murray, choose is called Tamale Pie. “It made me think about the first time I tasted a Tamale Pie,” relates Jennifer. “I was in junior high and my mother was trying out new casserole recipes. This casserole passed the test and we were very fond of the dish for years.  This was the kind of dish that could be taken to church suppers or get-togethers with family and friends such as Campfire Girl end-of-year suppers. Tamale Pie was one of the first dishes that I made for my husband after we were first married.” 

Tamale Pie

“Reading about Tamale Pie in PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS brought back such fond memories. It was easy to compile the ingredients and begin cooking. As we added the chili powder, cilantro, pinto beans, green chilies and salsa it looked and smelled so enticing.  We spread the corn meal mush over the top of the cast iron frying pan and sprinkled on the cheese and cilantro. The pan went into the oven that was set on broil.  We snuck peaks and then waited for it to be done.  The dish came out looking golden brown. We waited the recommended five minutes and then dished it up in bowls.  It was the perfect evening supper for a rainy night.  I gave some to a friend of mine who stopped by to take home. She has already called and asked for the recipe.  There is nothing better than a hot, flavorful meal on a Sunday evening before the next week begins.  We plan to make this again soon.”

PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS works wonderfully well for family dinners and for company. The six veal shanks called for in Osso Bucco with Dirty Polenta, can add big bucks to the cost of a meal, but Rioja Beef with Chickpeas, Peppers and Saffron or Coq au Vin Blanc with Spring Vegetables, are affordable, easy and deliver a flavorful punch when eating in or serving guests.  Each one-dish meal offers appetizer, salad and dessert options--all of them easy to prepare and comes with a wine recommendation.  This is a book that takes the stress out of producing a multi-course, multi-dish meals worthy of standing ovations.   

Cassoulet-Style Italian Sausages and White Beans

Serves 8

If there’s time, sprinkle buttered bread crumbs over each plated portion for a nice touch. Heat a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Toss 2 cups fresh bread crumbs (made in the food processor from a good European-style loaf) with 2 tablespoons melted butter and a light sprinkling of salt. Add the crumbs to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Stored in the refrigerator and warmed on the stovetop or in the microwave, this dish means instant dinner later in the week.

2½ pounds sweet Italian sausage links
3 pints cherry tomatoes
1 medium-large onion, cut into 1½-inch chunks
4 large garlic cloves, sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cans (about 16 ounces each) white beans, undrained

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix sausages, tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, thyme, bay leaves, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper in a large heavy roasting pan. Set pan in oven and roast until sausages are brown and tomatoes have reduced to a thick sauce, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven, stir in beans, and continue to cook until casserole has heated through, about 10 minutes longer. Serve.

Drink An earthy, full-flavored Languedoc or Grenache

Tamale Pie

Serves 6

You can use ground beef or even meat-loaf mix in place of the turkey. Onion lovers, sprinkle the casserole with ½ thinly sliced red onion along with the cheese and cilantro. You can make the tamale pie a day ahead, including topping it with the cornmeal mush. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the pie to prevent a skin from forming. An hour or so before serving, adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap, top the pie with cheese, cover with heavy-duty foil, and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle with the cilantro and the red onion, if you like, then follow the broiling and resting instructions in the recipe.

Any leftovers can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days and reheated in the microwave.

1½ pounds ground turkey (94% lean)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons chili powder, divided
1½ cans (about 16 ounces) pinto beans, undrained, ½ can mashed
1 can (4.5 ounces) chopped green chiles, undrained
2 cans (2.25 ounces each) sliced black olives, drained
1 jar (16 ounces) store-bought salsa (2 cups)
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup (8 ounces) grated sharp cheddar cheese

Adjust oven rack to middle position and turn on broiler. Heat a large (11- to 12-inch) deep skillet with an ovenproof handle over medium-high heat. Add ground turkey and cook, stirring frequently and seasoning lightly with salt, until it loses its raw color, a couple of minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons chili powder, then beans, chiles, olives, salsa, and ¼ cup cilantro and simmer to blend flavors, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 3 cups water, cornmeal, remaining 2 teaspoons chili powder, and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan, whisking frequently, until mixture thickens to mush. Pour cornmeal mush over hot meat mixture, spreading with a spatula to completely cover. Sprinkle with cheese and remaining ¼ cup cilantro. Broil until cheese melts and mush gets a little crusty, about 5 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Drink: A dry rosé or beer

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


This is the second in a series of reviews of classic cookbooks that have become staples in my cookbook library.  COOK WITH JAMIE by Jamie Oliver was the first.  There will be more in the coming year. 

I will never forget first time I ever ate a plate of pasta with Genoese pesto.  I was visiting my landlord in his home in East Hampton, New York.  I rented his Brooklyn Heights apartment in 1975 while he was taking a sabbatical from teaching at Hunter High School in New York.  Like me, Jack McNeil loved opera and he was an outstanding cook.  During a visit that long-ago weekend, he served pasta with pesto  and it completely blew me sideways.  I thought it was one of the most intoxicating dishes I'd eaten to that point. Fragrant basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, butter and Parmesan cheese were combined in a sauce and poured over hot pasta and tossed.  It seemed like the most exotic thing I've ever tasted, but at the same time, the simplest, most elemental of dishes.  A few years later, I bought THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK (Knopf), Marcella Hazan's first cookbook, and found her recipe for Blender Pesto.  I spent what seemed like a fortune on a bunch of fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, and some pine nuts at Balducci's an upscale New York Italian grocer in Manhattan's Greenwich Village (sadly no longer around) and made a batch of pesto for a dinner party. Everyone loved it and  I thought I was the most sophisticated of hosts.  Ms. Hazan's recipe had butter, which added a touch of richness and combined both percorino and Parmesan cheese.  For me there's never been a recipe as delicious or as fresh-tasting as Marcella Hazan's.  I used to put up batches of freezer pesto sauce to enjoy in the winter months (when basil was impossible to find in the markets), where you added butter and cheese after you defrosted it.

Last summer when I planted basil in my new garden in Portland, I was rewarded with an enormous basil harvest.  I pulled THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK down from the shelves and made batches of pesto sauce, something I hadn't done in years.  It was just as wonderful as I'd remembered.  Over the years, I've sometimes I spooned this superb emulsion into risotto, or on a baked potato.  It was always delicious on freshly boiled homemade gnocchi.  I've tried other variations on pesto sauce with cilantro or parsley, and other ingredients but nothing matches the depth of flavor of classic Genoese pesto, and Hazan's recipe remains my go-to source when I'm craving it.

Marcella Hazan was the first widely read authority in this country on authentic Italian cuisine from all regions. Through force of personality, her celebrated cooking classes, and her contacts within the food world, including the influential New York Times, Hazan essentially taught us the differences between Italian food and Italo-American cusine (though it would be many years later when Lidia Bastianich wrote her masterful Lidia's Italian-American Table, which rightfully elevated this wonderfully lusty American hybrid cuisine). Hazan sourced the recipes by region in a scholarly, yet accessible way.  Her work introduced many young cooks to the pleasures of risotto, gnocchi, roast spring lamb with white wine, polenta, the many kinds of frittatas, the astounding variety of vegetable dishes Italians eat including, fried zucchini blossoms, artichokes, and fava beans, and so much more.  We learned about pancetta, dried mushrooms, Italian rice used for risotto, semolina and other Italian products.  She talks about olive oil without reference to extra virgin olive oil and there is no mention of balsamic vinegar, both of which would become widely available in the U.S. in the decade following THE CLASSICAL ITALIAN COOKBOOK's publication.

Another great recipe from this book was the pork loin braised in milk. The first time I read this recipe I was intrigued.  It made no sense in relation to anything I'd cooked up to that point. You brown a small boneless pork loin in butter and olive oil, and then you add nearly three cups of whole milk, salt and pepper and gently braised the pork on top the of the stove in a small, heavy Dutch oven with the lid ajar for a few hours.  When the meat is tender, you pull it out of its milk bath and keep it warm.  What you are left with in the pot are these beige milk curds that have the consistency of custard.  You spoon off most of the fat and add a few tablespoons of hot water to the pan and vigorously stir the sauce which breaks up the larger curds.  The sauce doesn't smooth out--it still looks a bit curdled.  No problem.  You thinly slice the meat and pour the sauce over the slices and scatter freshly chopped parsley over all, before you serve.  It's divine--the loin is fork tender, its sauce is creamy in texture but subtle tasting and quite substantial.   I've seen many variations of this recipe since but it is the simplicity of Hazan's creation that draws me back to this wonderful dish again and again.

A third recipe that I've made over and over again is a Meat Loaf Braised in White Wine with Dried Wild Mushrooms.  This elegant, compact meat loaf is nothing you've ever seen before.  Lean ground beef is combined with a classic panade of white bread and milk, with the addition of onion, salt and pepper, chopped pancetta or prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, garlic, egg, and bread crumbs and rolled into a large salami-shaped loaf and braised in a sauce of tomato paste, reconstituted wild mushrooms, and white wine. It's a spectacular and simple entree from Tuscany.  Every recipe in this superb book is set out with Hazan's combination of specificity of technique and her wonderful, no-nonsense personality (that sometimes borders on the brusque).

Hazan offers five different tomato sauces here.  Why five?  Because some are more appropriate with dried pasta, one is particularly fine for gnocchi, another is recommended for use when summer tomatoes are in season.  It is these distinctions which elevate her work so much, and help in our understanding of this very great cuisine.

I've cooked from Hazan's other fine cookbooks, including a second volume of Classic Italian recipes,  and four other volumes. I'm devoted to the Italian cookbooks of Lidia Bastianich and Michele Scicolone, and Mario Batali.  Yet it is THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK, and its companion, MORE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING, both published more than thirty years ago, that I return to over and over again.

In 1992, Knopf, Hazan's long-time publisher brought out ESSENTIALS OF CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING, which brought together both volumes with updated and new material and that is the book you'll find most easily today.  I often saw copies of both originals at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, and I'm sure a local purveyor of old cookbooks will surely have them.  They are worth searching out.

Marcella Hazan is a culinary heroine to her many followers and is revered for introducing the joys of the Italian kitchen, much as Julia Child did with French cuisine.

Blender Pesto ready when I need it


Enough for a bout 6 servings of pasta

2 cups fresh basil leaves (see note below)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed with a heavy knife handle and peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated Roman pecorino cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

1. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in the blender and mix at high speed.  Stop from time to time and scrape the ingredients down toward the bottom of the blender cup with a rubber spatula.  

2.  When the ingredients are evenly blended, pour into a bowl and beat in the two grated cheeses by hand. (This is not much work, and it results in more interesting texture and better flavor than you get when you mix in the cheese in the blender.) When the cheese has been evenly incorporated into the ingredients, beat in the softened butter.  

3. Before spooning the pesto over the pasta, add to it a tablespoon or so of the hot water in which the pasta has boiled.  

NOTE: The quantity of basil in most recipes in given in terms of whole leaves. American basil, however, varies greatly in leaf sizes. There are small, medium, and very large leaves, and they all pack differently in the measuring cup. For the sake of accurate measurement, I suggest that you tear all but the tiniest leaves into two or more small pieces.  Be gentle, so as not to crush the basil. This would discolor it and waste the first, fresh droplets of juice.

In re-reading Hazan's original recipe, I couldn't find information about freezing, but I do recall somewhere that butter and cheese are added after defrosting the pesto, though I cannot remember why this was so.  In any event, I usually freeze four batches to enjoy in the winter months.