Hey everyone! How were your holidays? Mine were pretty great, despite the fact that I had a slight chest cold. (Lame) As always, Mark and I headed north up to Santa Maria to spend several days at his mother's. I was in charge of the food, which is nice since we usually go out to eat for Thanksgiving and I don't really get the opportunity to fix a big turkey dinner. It's almost more fun to put together a holiday meal like Christmas since you aren't really confined to the culinary customs and all the expected accompaniments. In fact in the days preceding Christmas break I'd IM various friends inquiring about their holiday traditions, what they did on Christmas eve, what they'd do for breakfast on Christmas morning, what time of the day they'd have Christmas dinner and what they'd eat. Everyone's answers were very different. Annie's family does a light Xmas eve, more snacky - cheese balls and crackers, things like that. Then for dinner the next day, she told me that they were planning on making the braised short ribs I made a couple weeks ago. For Christmas morning, my friend Eliza's family does a light breakie since there are small children around and they want to just hurry up and open presents. My friend Mary goes back home to NYC for the holidays and her family does a prime rib for their Christmas dinner. So many different options. What to do? Here's what I decided on:
- A selection of gourmet tamales from the Hollywood Farmers' Market (goat cheese, sun dried tomato and basil, grilled chicken with Anaheim green chile and cilantro, pork carnitas with green chile and Mexican Oregano, and of course green corn)
- Smokey tomatillo quinoa (adapted from a salsa recipe in Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless)
- Spinach salad with limed pepitas, pomegranate seeds, and crumbled feta (one of the dishes the Border Girls demonstrated at the cooking class I went to)
- Orange Chipotle shrimp
- For dessert Mark's mom picked up some individual flans from some little Mexican restaurant near her
- Thick brioche French toast topped with a warm banana, walnut and brown sugar mixture (Martha Stewart)
- Fresh pork sausage, also from the Hollywood Farmer's Market
- Roasted rack of lamb with Nicoise olive tapenade (from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
- Flageolet gratin with caramelized onions and brown butter bread crumbs (also Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
- Brussels sprouts with pancetta and golden raisins (from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris)
- For dessert, Mark's aunt Robin always makes and sends two cakes: A dark, dense persimmon cake and a crumbly, moist ginger cake.
For the most part, the meals were pretty much a success. I didn't do very well in heating up the tamales and once we cut into them at dinner they were still cool in the middle, but the salad, quinoa and shrimp were quite good. The French toast was great, very rich. The dinner, however, was only okay. Mark's mother and brother raved but I was sort of critical of my efforts. The lamb was very well-cooked, pink and velvety in the middle and the brussels sprouts were pretty amazing. I loved the unexpected addition of the sweet golden raisins along with the crispy, salty pancetta. The flageolet gratin, on the other hand, was a huge disappointment, although I blame myself, not Ms. Goin. I didn't use enough of the liquid the beans simmered in and once I transfered them in the gratin dish to finish baking the oven, the beans quickly absorbed the liquid and then dried out. Some sort of burned to the bottom of the dish. I plan on trying it again at some point in the future taking this mistake into account.
Once we arrived back home after several days of decadent meals and somewhat involved dishes with multiple steps and long preparation times I was in the mood for something a little more simple. I paged through the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, one of the gifts I received from Mark, but it turns out the book, while deeply informative and full of tantalizing recipes, is way more fussy than Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton combined. I soon found myself looking through Tyler Florence's most recent cookbook, Tyler's Ultimate. In it he has a recipe for "Hunter's Minestrone" one of the ingredients of which was a pound of sausage. Why, I just happened to have some left over from our Christmas morning breakfast that I had no plans for. Minestrone it is. A big pot of soup was just the kind of dish I was looking to make, plus it would give me the opportunity to use the fantastic new knife I just got, the seriously sharp Shun, Alton Brown's favorite. The addition of fennel and butternut squash is something I came up with after looking over a few minestrone recipes over on Martha's website.
(for the soup)
8 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife, plus 3 cloves, minced
10 cups chicken stock
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 small bulb of fennel, diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 to 1 pound pork sausage, removed from casing
1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes
2 to 3 14.5-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 to 1/2 pound rigatoni
(for the Parmigiano-Reggiano toasts)
1 thick slice of a chewy peasant bread per person
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, coarsely grated
grinding of black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
drizzle really good extra-virgin olive oil
grinding of black pepper
a scattering of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
a little fresh fresh thyme or flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Combine the chicken stock and the crushed garlic in a large sauce pan and simmer for about 15 minutes to infuse the stock with the garlic. Remove the garlic and discard.
Meanwhile, heat a large soup pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat for two minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and once it's nearly smoking drop bite size chunks of the sausage into the pot, making sure not to over-crowd the meat. Cook, stirring every so often until the sausage is nicely browned, reducing the heat a little if necessary.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage from the pot and reserve in a bowl.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pot and then toss in the onions, fennel, carrots, celery and chopped garlic, some salt and a little black pepper. Stir the vegetables to coat with the oil and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the onions have softened and become translucent. As the vegetables cook, use the juices that are extracted to help scrape up the caramelization left from the sausage in the bottom of the pot.
Return the sausage to the pot along with the crushed tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Then add in the beans, butternut squash, bay leaf, thyme, sage, rosemary, and red pepper flakes.
Pour in the stock, cover the pot, crank the heat to high and bring to a boil. Remove the lid, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 25 minutes.
While the soup simmers, bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Add a handful of salt and the rigatoni and cook for about 1 minute less than the package directions instruct. I find this usually results in perfectly al dente pasta, which is especially important in a dish like this where the pasta is submerged in liquid. Drain the pasta and return to the pot it was cooked in, drizzle with a little olive oil and reserve until the soup has finished.
To make the Parmigiano-Reggiano toasts, preheat your broiler. Then slather each slice of bread with a little of the softened butter, sprinkle with the Parmegiano, a grinding of black pepper and a scattering of either the thyme or the parsley. Place the toasts on a small baking sheet and broil for 2 to 3 minutes until the edges of the bread are brown and the cheese is bubbling and slightly golden.
To finish, add a couple spoonfuls of the pasta to a large, wide bowl. Top with a couple ladles of the soup, drizzle with some olive oil, grind on some black pepper and then scatter with the Parmigiano and thyme or parsley. Nestle in the Parmigiano-Reggiano toast, a big spoon and serve.
This is a soup ideal for colder weather. It's hearty but not exactly rich, if that makes sense. The broth has a lightness to it but is still very flavorful. As is often the case with dished like this, it's better the second day. The combination of the creamy beans, salty sausage, and the sweet cubes of butternut squash is very satisfying. Making the rigatoni separate and then adding it to each individual serving is something I like to do for soups that include pasta. That way you have more control over how al dente the pasta is. Otherwise if it's just added to the soup it invariably ends up becoming mushy and depressing. This way it maintains it's really nice, firm texture, a great contrast with the beans, squash, sausage and vegetables.
Of course no soup is complete without bread to dip in it. Topping the bread with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a little thyme is a nice, simple but unexpected way to gild the lily. It just really ties all the flavors together. Broiling the bread is great first of all because it's so fast and secondly it gives the edges of the bread a fantastic, crisp edge with a soft middle and underside. Perfect to soak up the broth.