Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beach food

How can it be January 31st already? I’m so in the weeds. My vacation at the beach already seems like it was months ago, and yet I still haven’t managed to post about it.

When I go to the beach on Cape Cod with my sisters and the kids, there are anywhere from six to twenty of us sharing a house, depending on which combination of brothers-in-law, parents, and passing friends is in residence. Hardly a day passes that someone doesn’t have to make a run to the grocery store, usually involving at least 2 bags of food. Since there were only going to be three of us on our recent beach vacation, I decided to plan ahead and try and avoid grocery store trips if I could. The area where we are staying has one very small and expensive grocery store/café, and the closest supermarket is a 15-minute drive. I knew we’d be heading into town for dinner at least once, and I could tack a quick grocery run onto that if need be; but for the most part I attempted to go prepared.

I brought staples and condiments from home, and mixed up batches of dry ingredients for bread, pancakes, and cake at home, so I could minimize the amount of packages and equipment I was transporting. I did a pre-trip grocery shop for things I knew we would need. I made a basic meal plan. And on the way out of Canberra on Saturday morning, we stopped at the farmers’ market so I could stock up on fresh meat and produce, which we piled into a cool bag already filled with ice and stuff from the fridge.

And it worked! I only had to use the beach café for sliced bread and milk, pretty much. And we got some pretty yummy, seasonal dishes out of the farmers’ market haul, including the following (please excuse photo quality; phone camera alert!):

Corn salad: the last of my first corn purchase of the summer. We ate it on the cob the first night; on the second night, I cut the remaining corn off the cobs, warmed it in some olive oil, and mixed through some chopped tomatoes and basil. Summer in a bowl.

Fridge-Clearing Frittata: we had a beach picnic dinner on Friday night, and I took the opportunity to mix up a bunch of leftover bits and pieces into a tasty, chunky frittata (this one includes chunks of grilled sausage, roasted potato cubes, the end of a batch of ratatouille, and some feta cheese). We ate it with a tomato and roasted green bean salad and some rolls, and shared it with any wildlife that happened to be passing (a friendly lizard and some relatively polite seagulls).

Cake!: because, for the first time ever, I got to spend my January birthday at the beach. Baking my own cake in a cottage kitchen was totally worth it. (I did get taken out for Thai food for dinner, also.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dessert insurance

Hi there! Long time no see. The school summer holidays/work from home juggling routine continues, plus we spent last week at the coast enjoying sun, sand, and surf, and of course some quality family time. I had imposed a no-computers-on-vacation rule when we booked the cottage six months ago, and then had to break it myself to keep an editorial project on track. Talk about eating crow.

Anyway, we're back in Canberra and entering the last couple of weeks of summer holidays, which doesn't seem possible - probably because the last couple of years we've been in Missouri, where school summer vacation lasts for three solid months. Now that's juggling.

Speaking of juggling, we had a dinner guest last night, a plan which emerged just before we left for the beach, and so which I didn't put in my diary and therefore realize would bump up against a 7:30pm work call I had already confirmed and could not reschedule. So yesterday afternoon found me trying to make a meal plan from what I had on hand (no time to grocery shop) that would produce a meal that was simple (but guest-worthy!), and would allow me to excuse myself from the after-dinner conversation, but leave something good behind as compensation.

Luckily our guest is an old friend, so no standing on ceremony was required. I made a batch of browned butter chocolate chip cookies; I baked two trays' worth of dough, and filled a big plate to put on the table when dessert time rolled around. I even had time to eat two before I had to dash away. Afterwards, while I cleaned up the kitchen, I scooped the uncooked dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and put it in the freezer. Once frozen, I put the cookie dough lumps in a heavy-duty freezer bag, ready for our next dinner guest - or to bake up by ones or twos when we want a little something sweet ourselves.

This freezing-dough-lumps technique would work equally well with other kinds of cookie dough - world peace cookies, mistake cookies, sugar cookies - and it's very reassuring to think of it stashed away, just in case you need it on short notice. You never know when a cookie emergency is likely to happen.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Concoction documentation

Between the disruption of normal routines caused by Christmas (and school summer vacation, and trying to maintain some level of work output notwithstanding) and a kitchen full of holiday food, I seem to be spending a lot of time lately concocting things out of bits and pieces to have for dinner, rather than cooking any of my regular standards, or trying out new recipes. Nearly everything I’ve made recently feels like a one-off, based upon a particular conjunction of ingredients I’ve got lying around.

Some of these have worked out better than others. This one, cooked up out of sheer desperation when I had a guest coming and my dinner Plan A had failed spectacularly, is by far the best of the lot, and worth recording for posterity and replication.

Creamy (and a little spicy) mushroom pasta
Please note that all measurements here are extremely approximate. Also note that butter appears twice; this is not a misprint – you use some at the beginning and some at the end. (I always forget about the second part when there’s one of those ‘divided’ instructions.)

1 Tbsp/½ oz/15 g bacon fat
1 Tbsp/½ oz/15 g butter
1 anchovy
2 slices hot salami, diced
1 small red onion, diced
2 handfuls mushrooms (any kind), chopped
1 lb/450 g pasta, preferably short
½ cup/4 oz/120 ml white wine
½ cup/4 oz/120 ml cream
2-3 oz/60-90 g goat cheese
salt & pepper
1 Tbsp/½ oz/15 g butter
grated pecorino romano cheese, for serving

Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta.

In another pan, heat the bacon fat and butter on medium, then add the anchovy, salami, and onion. Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring regularly, until onions have softened and anchovy has dissolved. Add mushrooms and cook for another 8-10 minutes, continuing to stir regularly, until mushrooms have released their liquid and begun to shrink and darken.

By now the pasta water should be boiling. Add a generous amount of salt and the pasta; stir to make sure the pasta isn’t clumping, and leave to return to the boil and cook for 8-10 minutes. Check and stir every couple of minutes.

Add white wine to the mushroom mixture and stir in, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze (get all the good stuff that's stuck on there). When most of the wine has cooked off, add cream and goat cheese and stir through. Lower the heat on the pan to lowest setting while you deal with draining the pasta.

When pasta is al dente, scoop out about 1 cup pasta cooking water and set aside. Drain pasta and return to the pan in which you cooked it.

Return your attention to the mushroom mixture. Taste and adjust seasonings, then add the second installment of butter and toss to mix through.

Combine pasta and mushroom mixture in whichever pan is easiest to mix in, and toss thoroughly. Add a splash or two of pasta cooking water, if you wish, to bring the whole thing together.

Serve immediately. Serves 4 adults with some left over.
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