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Radicchio hazelnut blue cheese salad

Raw bitter leaves must have a tonic effect. Am I right? I feel virtuous eating them – not as some sort of penance because they taste bad, but because I feel so alive when I crunch into them. In a let’s-bleed-you-with-leeches-to-make-you-feel-better  kind of way, they taste like they will clean my blood. And that bitter edge? I love it. I find myself craving bitter greens – the kales, the collards – and chicories – the radicchios and endives – with great regularity this time of year. It may be sacrilege to say in these parts, but if I had to choose between only being able to have tomatoes or chicories for the rest of my days, I’d choose chicories.

Why, you may ask, does my blood need cleaning? Well, I’m not sure it does, but I find cleaning things incredibly anxiety-reducing. As I’ve written here before, my closets are never cleaner than when I have multiple projects due at once. If I’m going to clean out the kitchen cupboards and organize the tool shelves in the garage, why not scrape my blood clean with bitter salads, too?

Of course I wouldn’t want it to get too clean. That could be dangerous, right? So in this case I’ve thrown in a fair amount of blue cheese (I like a mountain gorgonzola – neither terribly soft nor rock hard) and a few toasted hazelnuts for good measure. I find the traumatically strong tastes of radicchio and blue cheese magically tone each other down. The sharpness of the cheese and the bitter of the leaves giving into each other, softening each other, as if by each being so difficult to take they understand each other and make the other one not need to be so very much like that. (I think I’m still talking about this salad but I’m starting to see why we like this salad so much at our house….)

The secret to this little addictive radicchio hazelnut blue cheese salad is, I must admit, in the agrodulce. The fine people at Katz and Company once sent me some samples of their agrodulce – a slightly sweetened vinegar – and I found it so useful and we all loved the salads I made with it so much that one morning I discovered myself spending a rather ridiculous amount of money online ordering up a full assortment. I mean, I make very tasty red wine vinegar myself. Why not just doctor that up with some sugar in the dressing, which really does work just as well? I don’t know. Just know this: you can just add sugar to the vinegar and the salad turns out great. If, however, you’re in the market for some fancy “artisan vinegar” or find yourself in the happy possession of same, here is your chance to use it.

Radicchio hazelnut blue cheese salad

First, make the dressing in the bottom of the salad bowl. I use equal part extra virgin olive oil and agrodulce. For a single head of radicchio, use 2 teaspoons of each or 2 teaspoons oil and good red wine vinegar plus a teaspoon of sugar. Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt. If you want to be a bit fancier, mince a small shallot and let that sit in the agrodulce or vinegar for a few minutes before you add the oil.

Second, trim the radicchio (trevissio is also tasty here), chop it into bite-size pieces or slices, rinse it, and dry it. Add to the salad bowl and toss with the dressing.

Third, you can now, if you like to keep things simple, just eat the salad. It’s great just like this and I’ve been known to down a whole bowlful by myself at lunch. Fancy it up, though, by adding about 1/2 cup toasted and chopped hazelnuts and 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese. Or just use one or the other – all the couplings are delicious! You can toss these in or make it fancy by dividing the salad between salad plates and sprinkling the nut and cheese on each plate. Top with a grinding or two of black pepper if you’re so inclined.

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Caprese pasta

Much like the chickpea salad in July, I feel sheepish posting this. Too easy. Too simple. Yet it’s also too delicious not to share in case anyone out there isn’t making it.

Caprese pasta

The short version is this: chop tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil and toss with hot angle hair pasta. The longer and slightly more accurate version is –

1 – 1 1/2 pounds very ripe and sweet and meaty tomatoes

3 – 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 – 8 ounces fresh mozzarella ball(s)

Stack of basil leaves

Salt

1 pound angel hair pasta

Put a large pot of water on to boil. While that gets boiling, rinse tomatoes clean and pat them dry. Chop the tomatoes and put them in a very large bowl, being sure to include as much of the juices that may have escaped during chopping as possible.

Add olive oil to tomatoes, toss a bit, and let sit.

Drain mozzarella and dice it. You can add it to the tomatoes, if you want it to get a wee bit melty when you add the hot pasta. If I’m making this for myself, I do this. My dashing husband prefers this dish without the mozzarella, however, which is fine. No, really, it’s totally cool. So i leave it out and just add mine on top of my serving, as you see above.

Stack some basil leaves, roll them up, and slice them into thin ribbons. Set aside.

When the water is boiling, add enough salt to make it taste salty, add the pasta and cook until tender to the bite. Drain and quickly add to the tomatoes. Start tossing. Add some basil and toss to combine. Add more olive oil, if it seems at all dry.

Divide among serving bowls and garnish with basil (and mozzarella if you find yourself married to someone who for some insane reason doesn’t want mozzarella in their portion).

I should note that, despite my husband’s mozzarella-induced insanity, I must agree that the dish is perfectly delicious without it. I just really really like cheese. Like a lot. A bit of mozzarella in my tomato basil capellini keeps me from feeling weak or getting the vapors.

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Grilled halloumi and vegetables

Halloumi, for those of you not in the know, is a Greek cheese that you can grill or broil or saute. It doesn’t melt! Why doesn’t it melt? I’m thinking it has to do with its crazy rubber-like, chewy, salty nature. While I was at the family cabin this summer, my parents went back and forth between their house in Minneapolis during the week and up to the cabin on the weekends. So every week my mom would call or email and want to know what I wanted her to bring up. One week I thought having grilled halloumi and vegetables would be a nice dinner and asked her to get 2 or 3 packages of halloumi.

She ended up with “3 lbs halloumi” written on her shopping list.

We had quite a few grilled halloumi dinners. Enough, in fact, for me to finally figure out that the way to grill it isn’t in cubes on a skewers, which tends to make the cheese crack and break apart and stick to the grill, but cut into long rectangles put straight on the grill that can be manipulated individually, as well as decently oiled, making them easier to cook evenly.

Notice above the technique of putting the same vegetables on the same skewer, allowing for different cooking times for the different veggies (tomatoes are done quickly, red onions take a bit more time; see more about grilling vegetables). Just skewer everything, brush everything (including the halloumi pieces) with olive oil, sprinkle the veggies with a bit of salt (seriously, the cheese is really salty, so just enough to season them a bit), and grill until done how you like them. As you can see, we like things with a crusty edge at our house. Some may even call it a bit burnt, but we don’t.

Even my dad, who is not a particular fan of meatless dinners, loved the hearty texture of halloumi along with brightly colored grilled cherry tomatoes and chunks of zucchini. He also got pretty into grilling it. As he put it, “it’s kind of fun to grill something like that, that looks so pretty.”

We served it with a lemon orzo pasta (cook orzo in chicken broth, drain, toss with olive oil, lemon juice, and lemon zest – add chives or parsley with whatever floats your boat and serve it hot, warm, or even chilled) and a mint chutney (whirl a bunch of mint, a hot green chile like  a serrano, a few stems of parsley, a clove of garlic, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and salt to taste in a blender until smooth and saucy).

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Potatoes au gratin

Even though I’m back in San Francisco, land of chilly summer days and freezing summer nights, I still have a few things on my mind from the weeks I spent in northern Minnesota this summer.

First among these are potatoes au gratin. I became a bit obsessed with them this summer and I blame it all on the White Hawk (a.k.a. “The Hawk”). The Hawk is a restaurant and bar on the lake where is my family’s cabin. There is also a resort with a restaurant that no one on the lake really goes to anymore and a restaurant and bar that has been documented on these pages before, called the Lonesome Pine (a.k.a. “The Pine” – you see how we nickname things up north, hey?). The Hawk had closed, been sold, re-opened, closed again and then early this summer re-opened. Word on the lake was that the food was better than that at The Pine. We found that hard to believe at our house, but one night my mom and I took my son to find out.

Much like The Pine, the menu at The Hawk is Minnesota old-school. Ribs, chicken, walleye (although The Hawk throws in an option of Maine lobster – who orders that I do not know since fancy and expensive isn’t generally how the local crowd rolls). Dinners come with soup or salad and your choice of sides. One of the sides offered at The Hawk is “Awesome Auggies,” which, our very enthusiastic if slightly inept server explained were “the best potatoes au gratin ever – we pack them with cheese and some garlic and there’s pepper in there – they’re great.”

I’m no fool, I ordered the Awesome Auggies. Now I like a nice potato gratin Frenchie-style – either a dauphinoise with lots of gruyère and cream or an austere one with a few bits of ham with the potatoes and just a scattering of cheese shavings on top – but potatoes au gratin, creamy and full of cheddar cheese, leaves me weak in the knees. We never ever had them at home when I was growing up (probably, to her credit, because my mom didn’t buy Betty Crocker potatoes au gratin in a box like so many Minnesotan moms did), but I would sometimes get them at someone’s house or at a restaurant. To a kid who didn’t really much cotton to meat but found cheese irresistible, potatoes au gratin were the bomb, plain and simple. They were the ultimate side dish that I wished I could just order for dinner.

The enthusiastic server’s description of the Awesome Auggies got me pretty excited. A bit of garlic? Lots of pepper? Sign me up. I prepared myself for awesomeness. I started, in my crazy-pants fashion, thinking about ordering an extra side of them in case they were really as awesome as they sounded.

They were not awesome. They were salty. But they were not awesome. One of the ways in which they were not awesome was that they were not potatoes au gratin. They were the insides of twice-baked potatoes in a gratin dish. Sort of mashed, sort of chunky. Orange colored but it seemed to be more from paprika than from cheese.

The Awesome Auggies simply left me with an insatiable desire for good potatoes au gratin. As the addage goes, if you want something done right you need to do it yourself.

Potatoes au gratin

These are made with sliced potatoes – if you have a mandoline this is a good time to break it out, but a sharp knife and  a steady hand will do the job just as well. The real key is to slice the potatoes as evenly as possible, whether that be thickish or thinish.

4 pounds potatoes (Russets or Yukon Golds)
3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cloves garlic (optional)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 375. Peel potatoes, if you like, but you can simply give them a good scrub if you like to leave peels on. Slice potatoes into even slices. About 1/4-inch thick is good, but whatever thickness you can manage evenly is just dandy.

Use some of the butter to grease a 9×13 pan and set it aside.

Melt the rest of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. When the butter melts all the way and stops bubbling or foaming, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking and cooking until the mixture smells like pie crust (this signals that the flour is cooked), 2 to 3 minutes. Still cooking and whisking, slowly pour in about half the milk. Whisk until smooth then ad the remaining milk and cream and whisk until smooth.

Reduce heat to medium and cook, whisking, until sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, pepper, and cayenne, as you like, and about a cup of the cheese. Whisk until cheese melts and sauce is smooth, about a minute.

Layer about half the potatoes in the pan and pour about half the sauce over them. Layer in the rest of the potatoes, pour the remaining sauce over them, and sprinkle the whole thing with the remaining cheese.

Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake uncovered until bubbling and browning on top, about 25 minutes. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving. Reheats beautifully. Freezes, like all potato-laden dishes, horribly.

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Green chile cheeseburgers

There are a few dishes that, come summertime, my family very much likes to have me cook up. By “family” I mean family of origin – plus additions – in Minnesota, not just my dashing husband and young son in San Francisco. Turkey tacos are always a hit, as is any grilled meat affair. For the fourth, though, we kept it simple and I made much loved green chile cheeseburgers. The great thing about these burgers is you can cook them well done and they’re still juicy and moist and delicious. How is that possible? From the grated cheese that is inside the burger. It is mixed in, along with chopped roasted green chile. I developed them when I was still at Sunset for a whole hamburger heaven spread. I developed quite a few recipes for that story. These are the only ones I ever make.

Green chile cheeseburgers

Handle the meat as little as possible to keep the final burgers as tender as possible. Cook over truly high heat. Flip only once and, for the love of god, don’t press down on the burgers with a spatula while they’re cooking! What is that? Why would a person press all the juice out of the burger?

Experience tells that this recipes easily halves or doubles.

2 or 3 large mild green chiles (like poblanos)

3 pounds lean ground beef

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons sea salt

Get the grill going. Char the chiles, turning to brown/blacken them evenly. Take the chiles off the grill and let them sit 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the skin (it should slip off easily), stems, and seeds and finely chop the chiles.

Note: the chiles can also be charred over a gas flame or under a broiler if you want to prepare the burgers ahead of time.

Put the ground beef in a large bowl and gently break it up with your hands. Add chiles, cheese, and salt. Use your hands to gently mix to combine. Divide meat evenly into 8 chunks. Gently pat each chunk into a burger about 3/4-inch thick at the edges, making a slight dimple or dip in the middle of each patty. Put the patties on a baking sheet, cover, and keep chilled until ready to cook.

Make sure the fire on the grill is hot. You should only be able to hold your hand about an inch over the cooking grate for a second before pulling it away. Put the burgers on – they should sizzle immediately – and cook without turning or pressing or messing with them in any way until they have grill marks and well browned edges on one side, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip them over and cook until grill marked on the other side and cooked to your liking. For me it’s another 5 minutes or so. Remember, these burgers are designed to be delicious even though fully cooked, but if you want to keep things less than fully cooked please, I beg of you, please grind your own meat or make sure you know where and when it was ground. Actually, no matter what please look into that last item. Commercial ground beef can be some vile stuff.

Serve on a bun, with the condiments and fixings you like. A good burger, in my opinion, can be kept very simple and, as you can see, that’s how I eat mine. You and your burger? That’s your business.

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Ricotta parfaits

I’m addicted. I cannot stop making and eating little layered concoctions with a base of ricotta. Ricotta with jam. Ricotta with honey. Nuts or crumbled wafer cookies or cacao nibs sprinkled in there somewhere. My favorite combination so far is to top the ricotta with the honeyed kumquats I made a few weeks ago – I’m running out fast and find myself wishing I had made a lot more of them – and some toasted walnuts.

I’ve been constructing them in simple glasses for dessert, as above, but also slathering them into cereal bowls for breakfast. Here’s the one I’m eating as I write:

Yogurt, of course, works, too. Note: my dashing husband vastly prefers them when made with thick Greek yogurt. He finds the ricotta “grainy.” Um, yeah, I think, that’s the whole point – the oddly dry-yet-still-moist, sort of chewy but still mainly smooth texture of ricotta is its entire appeal to me. But, if, like him, you like things more obvious and creamy, then by all means, use some yogurt. The nice thing with a parfait is that they are individual. So I make mine with ricotta and everyone else’s with Greek yogurt. It makes me feel quite kind and generous and thoughtful as I force yet more layered dairy product, sweet fruity element, and crunchy bits on my family.

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Macaroni and cheese

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Macaroni and cheese, the kind made with actual cheese and not orange powder from a box, makes me think of one thing: the time right after my son was born. A dear friend made me a double batch (one for eating, one for freezing) of some kick-ass, creamy, luscious, rich macaroni and cheese. I was just home from the hospital, trying to nurse this tiny bundle of screams and coos, and – despite what books and doctors had promised – he was awake all day except for 20-minute dozes he would take after a feeding if I was lucky. Instead of sleeping 20 out of 24 hours, he used that time to eat. Everyone said I needed to nurse him on-demand, so I did. His demand, however, was insatiable. I was tired and hungry and so so so so very thirsty all of the time. It seemed like there would never be enough sleep or food in the world to fix my state.

That mac and cheese sure helped, though. I ate it for every meal one day – the breakfast included three scrambled eggs on the side which I maintain is the best nursing mother breakfast possible. Fortifying to exhausted body and weary soul.

In one sense I can still feel everything from that time – the magic of the new born, the feeling of a cascade of spit-up running down my chest, the pit of hunger that gnawed on me day and night as the life was literally sucked out of me, the ability to fall fully asleep while sitting up if given just 10 seconds of quiet and stillness – and in another sense it’s all a blur. But this I know: for better or for worse that time ended, or at least it morphed into other times. And those times quickly blur into one another in my memory and mainly what I see is the six year old beside me now. The six year old who leaves this on my desk:

maccheesenote1

Here is how the note came about:

“Mama, the chicken at Good Frickin’ Chicken is good, but the macaroni and cheese is also really good.”

“Mmmm hmmm,” I nodded as I drove to school.

“Mama, don’t you think their macaroni and cheese is really good?”

“Uh, it’s okay, I guess. It’s not my favorite.”

“What IS your favorite then?”

“Well, I suppose the kind I make.”

Silence. Stunned silence as Terry Gross murmurs over the airwaves.

“Mama, you can MAKE mac and cheese?!?!?!”

I like this about six a lot. Ernest knows I cook as part of my job. He knows I’m a good cook (mostly from people constantly telling him and trying to make him talk about how lucky he is, but to him it is just food and he wishes there was more fried chicken gracing the table, thank you very much). Yet he hasn’t quite figured out that if it is food, I can make it. So each new item is like a gift offered down from the heavens. As with crêpes, as with baguettes.

So I said I’d make mac and cheese for dinner and then forgot to go buy cheese, and the next morning the above was waiting for me when I returned from dropping him at school – a process that involved several verbal reminders to buy cheese. Cheese was bought, grated, and baked, all were happy:

Just Plain Delicious Macaroni and Cheese

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This makes a decidedly Spartan version of macaroni and cheese – that is, the pasta-to-sauce ratio is a tad sparse. For a richer, saucier version, simply reduce the amount of macaroni to half a pound.

1 pound elbow macaroni or other small tube-shaped pasta

5 cups milk (sometimes I use a cup of white wine for a grown-up flair, adding that first to the butter-flour mixture, then adding four cups of milk)

1/2 cup cream (or increase milk to 5 1/2 cups)

7 Tablespoons butter

About 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (about 6 slices of white sandwich bread or similar)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon dijon mustard (optional)

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

6 cups shredded cheese (about 20 ounces total) – I like to use about half aged gouda, and half regular gouda but there are infinite possibilities

Preheat oven to 375. Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until just tender to the bite – drain it and set it aside.

If you’re feeling precise, gently warm milk and cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat or, I imagine, for about a minute in the microwave. If you add it cold to the roux the whole thing will seize up and you’ll have to really whisk a lot of lumps out of it – work now or work later, it’s your choice.

In a large pot over medium high heat, melt the butter. While butter melts put bread crumbs in a medium bowl. Pour out 2 tablespoons of the butter and toss with the bread crumbs. Set aside. Return remaining butter to the heat. When it stops foaming, whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until you get a slight cooked pie crust smell, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly. Cook, whisking, until sauce thickens slightly. Stir in salt, mustard if you like, nutmeg, pepper, and cayenne.

Add cheese, one handful at a time, whisking or stirring between additions so you have a smooth sauce before adding more cheese. When all the cheese is melted into the sauce, remove from the heat. Add more salt, nutmeg, pepper, or cayenne to taste. Add pasta and toss to thoroughly coat the noodles with the sauce. Pour macaroni into a 9-by-13 baking pan. Cover with bread crumbs and bake until bubbling and golden on top, about 20 minutes.

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The labor of vegetable & halloumi kebabs

veggiekebobplatter

In true Labor Day tradition, the grilling never stopped. Nor did the work.

When I was a kid, Labor Day still marked the official end of summer. The Tuesday after Labor Day was the first day of school and Labor Day itself was the day we closed up the cabin for the summer. The fridge was cleaned out, the docks taken up onto land, the boats driven to the marine, and the water turned off. We wouldn’t go back up until the opening of fishing season – which always fell on Mothers Day weekend leaving moms and kids alone in the city while the fishermen headed north for putting in docks, fetching boats, and some fishing worked in between card games and generalized debauchery.

That world is long gone, which is a funny thing to say about a world I knew well when I’m still in the process of pushing forty. Cabins are mostly winterized, so the whole opening and closing for the season aspect is less clear when it happens at all. I’m sure most of the fishermen who head up north in Minnesota in mid-May are still men, but when I looked around the lake this summer when I was there it seemed that there were just as many women casting into the still waters next to fallen trees as there were men.

But I digress. I hadn’t grilled halloumi, that firm salty Greek cheese you can grill, in a long time. I made halloumi and veggie kebabs – the key being separate sticks.

veggiekebaobs

Why separate skewers? Simple: veggies, meats, shrimp, cheeses – whatever you’re grilling – probably each cook at at least slightly different times. By putting the different items on their own skewers, you can cook them each properly. But what about each person having their own skewer, you ask? I do the table and my guests the service of taking everything off the skewers first – it’s always so awkward at the table to have these giant metal swords – and putting the offerings on a platter so everyone can take what they like.

It works great. The separate skewers are especially useful should you forget to oil either the halloumi or the grilling grate. Then you can let the veggies cook properly as you grab the cheese off  the grill and artfully wield a metal spatula to salvage bits from the grill to maintain a semblance of a balanced and complete dinner.

If you spent the day digging up bushes you’ve never liked and creating piles of branches as tall as yourself from all the pruning you’ve done and transplanting unruly potted palm trees and cleaning out a storage area on the cement slab to one side of your yard and falling backwards onto the same cement slab as a wood deck chair crashes on top of you which leaves you slightly beat up and traumatized, scraping bits of burning cheese off your grill may not be super-duper fun. I’m just saying.

So brush the halloumi with olive oil, skewer it with some olives for yummy fun, and make skewers of whatever vegetables you like grilled (we did mushrooms, zucchini, red peppers, and chiles – and we would have had red onion wedges and cherry tomatoes if we’d had them). I served the whole skewered, grilled, and de-skewered mess with lemon herb orzo.* Lovely lovely end-of-summer dinner.

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While the cheese or meat and the veggies all end up being more precisely and perfectly cooked (again, as long as you oil something) with the single-item-on-a-skewer method, I will admit that I miss the strategic threading that was one of my favorite ways to help with dinner at the cabin as a kid. There were often gobs of grandparents and aunts and uncles and first cousins once-removed and friends and fiances around for dinner, so kebabs were a popular dinner item. Making sure each skewer had an equal allotment of each item, and placing them for what I believed to be maximum flavor impact (onion next to meat, for example), kept me delighted for what seemed like hours. A young cook-in-the-making or an early display of some mild OCD? I’m guessing it was both.

*Lemon Herb Orzo

Bring 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth and 2 cups water to a boil. Taste it – it should be plenty salty, but if it isn’t about as salty as sea water add enough salt to make it so. Cook a 1-pound box of orzo until tender. Drain and toss warm orzo with 3 Tbsp. delicious olive oil, the zest of 1 lemon, the juice of 1 to 2 lemons (to taste), and whatever fresh herbs you have around and sound good. I’m a particular fan of adding about 1/2 cup of minced mint to the whole thing, although others may find that a bit much. About 1/4 cup minced parsley, basil, cilantro, and/or mint is a good amount to start with – you can always add more. Serve warm, at room temp, or even cold (although you may want to add both more olive oil and more lemon juice that way).

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Cheese straw directions

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When a recipe by someone who knows what’s what tells you to line a baking sheet with silpat or parchment, one should probably at least grease the pan. I made these absolutely delicious Buckwheat Cheese Straws by Heidi Swanson over at 101 Cookbooks to bring to a dinner party. I was feeling pretty clever and pleased with myself – I had been wanting to make these anyway, I was hungry and craving a crispy snack, it was a bit gray and foggy that morning so turning on the oven sounded cozy, if I brought them to the party I wouldn’t eat the entire batch,  and I was going to be bringing something a little more attention-grabbing than a bowl of olives to the party.

So I made the dough and chilled it and rolled it out and cut it and rolled it out some more and popped it in the oven. And then I went to turn them over and my eye caught the part in the middle of the recipe that says “line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat” as I bent to open the oven door and my heart sank just a little.

Those things were stuck. Professional spatula-wielding skills came in handy, as did the new “medium impact” athletic bra I was wearing, what with all the jiggling and jarring necessary to salvage the straws, at least as edible bits if not as “straws” of lean elegant cheesiness.

All was not lost. I had 1) more dough and  2) plenty of parchment paper:

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Depression friendly dinners

As I wrote “depression friendly dinners” I was thinking of the economic recession-depression, but I realize that I had also cooked up dishes that would be quite comforting in the face of emotional blues and might even be able to tempt someone sequestered in psychological depression to take a bite or two.

I was just out to make use of the food we had in the fridge – making room for the next CSA box and avoiding wasting food. There was a last bit of salad – that got tossed with a vinaigrette, natch. But a bag of new red potatoes and a bunch of bits of cheese were hanging out in there too. At first I thought: potato gratin! But new red potatoes aren’t really the best for baking, they’re better for boiling or steaming. Just the teeniest bit of brainstorming and I remembered the magic that is Welsh rarebit (a.k.a. Welsh rabbit) – an ale and cheese sauce that is usually poured over toast.

Welsh rarebit

Boil or steam potatoes or any other vegetable that would be good with cheese sauce poured over it (so that’s pretty much anything, right?) or toast some bread.

Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is fully melted and stops foaming but hasn’t started to brown at all, sprinkle in 3 Tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour (or just plain old flour if you like, but even this bit of whole wheat added a nice nuttiness to the final sauce) and whisk to combine the butter and flour. Cook and whisk until you smell cooked rather than raw flour – it smells like pie crust. No sense of smell or don’t know what I’m talking about here? Try 2 to 3 minutes and you should be fine. While still whisking, slowly pour in a 12-oz. bottle of beer or ale. When you get a smooth mixture, cook, whisking frequently, until the sauce starts to thicken slightly. Add about 8 oz. of cheese cut into small chunks or shredded – an aged cheddar would, of course, be lovely, as would an aged gouda. I just used assorted bits from the cheese drawer. Whisk until cheese is melted. Add about 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce*, if you like, and 1/2 tsp. dry mustard. Add salt to taste and hot sauce to taste, if you like. If using potatoes, smash them a bit so their starchy insides can absorb the cheese sauce. Pour sauce over potatoes or vegetables or toast and garnish with freshly ground black pepper if you’re so inclined.

Maybe now you have some leftover boiled potatoes and some leftover cheese sauce. Sure, you could just reheat them both and have the rarebit all over again, which would be a perfectly fine thing to do. Or, maybe, like me, visions of potato cheese soup dance in your head. If you want to make those dreams a reality, first peel and mash the leftover potatoes – for a smooth soup run them through a food mill or ricer. Then bring a bottle of beer or ale to a boil in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the leftover (now very thickened) cheese sauce until everything is smooth. Stir in mashed potatoes and heat until hot. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you have some spring onions or green onions hanging around, slice them up for perfectly pungent and crunchy garnish. If you also have a chile you could slice that up and add it in with the onion for spicy delicious measure:

There, doesn’t that feel better? Or sort of virtuous? Whenever I don’t buy anything to make dinner I feel like I’m saving money. Sure, I realize we spent money buying the things I find in the fridge and cupboards in order to make the “free” meals, but it still feels good. It feels good to save the money, it feels good not to waste things, it feels good to come up with ways to use the things we have instead of mindlessly buying more more more.

* Full confession: I cannot say the word “Worcestershire.” I don’t know what it is. I add extra t’s and entire syllables. Every time I try to say it my dashing husband laughs his ass off.

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