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Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

Back in October, I did a stage at Bon Appetit for a day. Yes, the Bon Appetit. It was an amazing experience and I feel so lucky to have had it; getting to see exactly what went down in the BA test kitchen, whose recipes I pour over each month when my issue arrives, was sort of a dream come true. Even more delightful was this February, when I saw several of the recipes I helped prep in print in the magazine!

Since a stage is sort of like a day-long interview, the test kitchen cooks, in addition to testing my skills and focus, asked me a lot of questions throughout the day to get to know me better. Mid-afternoon, one question that was less professional and a bit more personal came up – “What is your favorite food?”

True to my thought process when questioned by any authority figure, I quickly debated telling them the response that would make me look more interesting, more cultured, more appealing as a cook, versus just the plain old truth. But since I’m a terrible liar, I opted not to spin tales of foie gras and venison, and went with the latter; “It’s a little boring, but I’m such a pasta lover.” Apparently someone else in the test kitchen was a pasta junkie too, and so it went over well.

And really, it’s not that surprising. Who doesn’t love thick, hearty strands of semolina goodness swirled through rich sauces, be them tart and savory, or luscious and creamy? A well-done pasta is something few people can escape the allure of.

Enter this week, where I was doing some hardcore procrastinating on my new favorite interweb obsession, Pinterest (that is, me and the rest of the female population of the world), when I came across this recipe for Pasta Puttanesca. Or rather, this picture:

From The Pioneer Woman; click for source.

I love the Pioneer Woman. The first time I ever saw her her was around Thanksgiving 2010, when Ree Drummond was on TV competing in the Thanksgiving Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Bobby and his team were driving up to the Drummond Ranch, and I freaked out a little bit because my boyfriend’s last name is also Drummond. In my naiveté, I frantically texted him asking if he might be related to whoever Flay was throwing down against, and though it wasn’t the case (that we know of), I still watched the whole episode, endeared by Ree’s personality and casual yet expert approach to cooking. And her food blog/website basically sets the bar for food bloggers.

Anyway, I saw this Pasta Puttanesca, and knew it had to be good. I’d never made puttanesca before, but a quick skim of the recipe proved I had most of the ingredients already, and it could be dinner in a cinch. I made a few modifications to the inspiration recipe, adding some sautéed chicken breast, using both black and kalamata olives, and a bit less cheese and oil to up the flavor while cutting the fat.

And it really did come together quickly – forty minutes, from start to finish, and I took my time. This pasta dish is so insanely delicious – the grape tomatoes provide the traditional acidic base of red sauce that we all crave, but the anchovies and olives add a layer of silky, savory Mediterranean flavor that makes this sauce downright addicting. I used Trader Joe’s High Fiber Spaghetti and added some herb-sautéed chicken breast for extra fiber, a punch of protein and staying power. Tossing the whole thing with some Parmesan cheese and fresh basil at the end ties it all together – it is, in essence, the perfect pasta.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself!

Pasta Puttanesca with Herbed Chicken – Serves 4

Adapted from The Pioneer Woman

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ whole red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 ½ cups of grape tomatoes, halved
  • ¾ cups of low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 4 whole anchovy filets, minced
  • 1/4 cup of black olives (the canned variety), finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup of kalamata olives, finely chopped
  • 1 ounce of grated parmesan cheese
  • 8 ounces of high-fiber or whole wheat Spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil for garnish
  • 2 4-ounce chicken breasts
  • Pinch of oregano or Herbs De Provence
  • Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Method

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta to al dente while preparing the sauce.

2. Combine the minced garlic, anchovies, and olives in a bowl. Set aside.

3. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced red onions and cook until they start to caramelize, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the grape tomatoes and cook for 3 to 4 minutes more, until tomatoes start to soften.

4. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic/anchovy/olive mixture. Stir to combine the sauce, reduce heat to low, and continue to gently simmer until the sauce has reduced to your liking. Keep in mind the pasta will absorb some of the liquid, so wetter is better. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Meanwhile, season the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and a sprinkle of Herbs de Provence or Oregano. Heat a skillet over medium heat and grease lightly with non-stick cooking spray or olive oil. Cook chicken breasts for 2 – 3 minutes on each side until golden brown and cooked through. Remove from pan and set aside. Once chicken has cooled slightly, roughly chop into bite-sized pieces.

6.  Drain pasta and add to the sauce pan, along with the diced chicken. Add the grated Parmesan and toss to coat pasta in the sauce. Garnish with chopped basil sprinkled over the top. Serve right out of the skillet.

Nutrition Facts (per HUGE serving; makes 4 servings) – 344 calories, 11 grams of fat (1.8g saturated fat), 7.2 grams of fiber, 23.5 grams of protein.

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Anyone ever have Hamburger Helper when they were a kid?

I may be part of a minority of Americans whose childhood was not, at the very least, punctuated by the presence of this warm, hearty genre of meals. Along with a myriad of other pre-packaged foods, Hamburger Helper was on my parents mental black list of food that would rarely, if ever, see the inside of our cabinets, and in exchange my brother and I were treated to a variety of delicious home-cooked meals each night, made usually from scratch (although Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was, thankfully, an exception).

Despite the fact that, growing up, I rarely wanted for anything more delicious than what my parents put in front of me nightly (except for on Fish Fry nights, I truly hated that flounder), I wonder if I was perhaps missing out on a quintessential childhood experience of a small box of Hamburger Helper transforming ground meat into a delightful family experience and delicious meal. Every time I saw those commercials, a little part of me would wonder…

Until now! On Friday, one of my favorite food bloggers, Kristen at IowaGirlEats, posted her traditional list of Friday Favorites, and among it was this recipe for Homemade Chili Mac from Babble. Although it was well before lunch time when I perused her post, I immediately began drooling over the picture for this recipe, and filed it away in my inbox while making a mental note to prepare this over the weekend.

During a stroll around town on Saturday afternoon, my craving and curiosity still hadn’t waned, so I hopped into the local grocery store and picked up the onions, peppers, ground meat and cheese necessary to create this self-proclaimed Hamburger Helper remake. But as I walked around Gristedes, grabbing items from the shelves, I had a clear sense of satisfaction in that not a single ingredient I picked up came in a colorful box labeled with indecipherable ingredients. This would be Hamburger Helper 2.0 – a cleaner, fresher, though not quite healthier version.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record in saying that “I can’t believe how easy this was to make,” but it’s true! Honestly, it’s fool proof – the trickiest part of this recipe, perhaps, is over cooking the meat, but since it’s simmered in beef stock while the elbow macaroni cooks, it’s nearly impossible to achieve anything but juicy, tender hamburger meat. And while the meaty base may taste a bit flat, even with the savory meat and added spices, that mild cheddar cheese provides just the right amount of tang and thickness to bring the whole dish together.

Needless to say myself, my roommate, and my boyfriend all went back for more of this. As in seconds. And thirds. We even compared it to these, which is probably one of the more delicious creations to come out of my kitchen. Moral of the story? If you’re a home cook who prefers to cook “au natural” and avoid pre-packaged meals, you can capture the rich, home-style flavors of a hamburger classic all on your own. And, if you are a lover of Hamburger Helper, why not give this homegrown version a whirl? You might be pleasantly surprised with what you whip up on your own :)

Homemade Chili Macaroni and Cheese

(Adapted from Babble.com)

Ingredients

  • 1 lb lean ground hamburger
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 medium bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ tablespoon of hot sauce, like Chili-Garlic sauce (or less, to taste)
  • chili powder to taste (optional)
  • 4 ounces of tomato paste
  • 1 – 15 oz can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 2 cups elbow macaroni
  • 2 cups mild cheddar shredded cheese
  • 1 can (15 oz) diced tomatoes
  • Canola oil 

Method

 Preheat a large skillet or pot. Drizzle with canola oil. Add ground beef, onions, bell peppers and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until beef is browned and vegetables are tender.

 Add cumin, paprika, and oregano to ground beef. Add hot sauce (or chili powder) at this step if you want a spicier dish. Add tomato paste, kidney beans, diced or canned tomatoes and beef stock. Bring to a boil and add macaroni.

 Turn to a simmer and cover. Cook until macaroni is tender, about 10 minutes. Add cheese and mix until blended. Serve immediately.

Want to lighten this up? Substitute lean ground turkey or chicken for the ground hamburger meat, whole wheat elbows for the pasta, and use low fat cheddar cheese instead of the full fat version.

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Our time spent on Regional Italian Cuisine blew past before I had a chance to really let it all sink in; punctuated by a “Hurricane,” Labor Day, and a lot of soaking up the last moments of summer, we’ve already moved on in the kitchen to curries, noodles and sushi. But I’d feel amiss if I didn’t spend a bit of time talking about the cuisine of one of my favorite counties and sharing our culinary education through this great country with some photos and detail.

First of all, probably the coolest thing we covered in our Tour d’Italia at ICE (that I didn’t learn in my Italian Techniques recreational class last year) was how to make our own fresh mozzarella. I know, it seems too good to be true, right? How could this much beloved food, whose creation is a mystery to most of us, actually be easy enough to make in your own home / classroom? It blew my mind how simple it really was!

You start with a pot of super salty (as in saltier than the sea) water, and bring it to a boil. You’ll also need some cheese curds, two big bowls, a ladle and a wooden spoon, and a few pairs of latex gloves lest you burn your little fingers. Add the cheese curds to a bowl, and ladle some hot water over them, until they’re just covered. Don your gloves and man your spoon! Use the spoon to massage the curds until they start to form a large, soft mass. Eventually switch from the spoon to using your hands to massage the cheese, kneading it gently until it is just soft (be careful not to over work it). Switch out the cloudy, cooling water for fresh hot water frequently.

Once the cheese is soft, the fun part kicks in. Remove the mushy cheese mass from it’s salty brine, and begin to stretch it, as  perhaps you’ve seen on TV, or if you’re a New Yorker, in Eataly. Stretch and fold the mass a few times until you are back to having a small ball. Place it in your bowl, switch out the cooling brine for hot water, and repeat this process two more times. Once you’ve done that, you’re basically done! Just form your cheese into one, two, or three small balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate in a container of left-over brine until you’re ready to use. That took, what, five minutes? Sweet.

We used the fresh motz to make some truly delicious and super simple sandwiches, also known as Mozzarella en Carozza or “Mozzarella in a Carriage” (cute, eh?). It’s as simple as layering the cheese along with some fresh tomato and basil in between two slices of Italian bread, dipping in egg, then breadcrumb, and frying in hot olive oil until golden brown and crisp on both sides. Think of this as an upscale version of Mozzarella sticks!
Excellent dipped in marinara and enjoyed until a food coma sets in.

   

And then, of course, there was pasta. Everything from fresh, hand-rolled tortellini and ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and pine nuts, to stiff, hearty semolina bucatini tossed in a savory tomato-ricotta sauce was fair game. We kneaded, rolled, and sliced more fettucine than I care to recall, though it’s a source of personal pride to say I’ve now mastered both an old-school hand-cranked pasta machine, and the rolling-it-out by hand technique.

 

 

 

The resulting butternut squash ravioli in a sage-brown butter sauce (my cure for all life problems) was to-die-for. Simple, exquisite, delicioso!

And so, over the course of five days, we gave life to these indulgent plates of flour and egg, cheese and olive oil…

Warning: Do not proceed on an empty stomach. 

Hand-cut fettucini with pesto, green beans, potatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Rigatoni with mini cauliflower florets and sweet Italian sausage 

Sicilian salad of slivered fennel, red onion and orange with olive oil and red wine vinegar

Eggplant and Pine nut Caponata with Bruschette

Potato Gnocchi with a Fresh Cherry Tomato and Thyme Sauce

Acqua Pazza – Also known as Red Snapper in “Crazy Water”

Crispy Eggplant Fritters with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a Zesty Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Hand-cut Fettuccine with a Sundried Tomato Pinenut Pesto, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano

And, last but not least, hand-cut Pappardelle with a rich Wild Boar Ragu

Anyone who reads my blog regularly probably knows this already, but it’s worth mentioning again that I’m a huge fan of Italian cuisine. If anything, our few days spent exploring the varied and delicious cuisines of Italy only reaffirmed my love for this country’s food, while imparting in me a great knowledge for the lesser known specialties and regional dishes. While perhaps it wasn’t all new information, it was certainly one of the most enjoyable and fun-filled sections of culinary school to date – here’s hoping for more to come :-)

Keep an eye out for a recap of our Culinary Silk Road and see how ICE does Asian fare with dishes from India, Thailand, China and Japan – coming up soon!

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You know what I love about this dish? It’s really really hard to screw up. Like, even if you over-cook the orzo because you were too busy picking bits of the raw chicken you just butchered out from under your fingernails, while attempting to take a sip of the wine your boyfriend just poured you, while trying to stay organized as you cook dinner for his parents … there’s a good chance it’ll still be a crowd pleaser. This dish is good warm, but it’s even better cold or at room temperature, and I’m pretty sure it would steal the show of any backyard barbecue if only the weather would get warm enough for this to be actually possible. At the end of the day, this dish is idiot-proof, and I love that about it because let’s all face the facts – even the best cooks sometimes forget about that foamy, slowly over-boiling pasta pot in the corner when faced with sweet, crispy, savory proscuitto-wrapped fig appetizers. Who hasn’t been in a scenario like that?

My point? Make this. It’s soooo easy. And yes, I do say that a lot with my recipes, but that’s because a) I’m a bit lazy and therefore b) they’ really are that easy.  But I ask, can it get much easier than boiling pasta and tossing it with some raw ingredients? After spending hours butchering meat and thickening sauces with roux and starch compounds at ICE, I can assuredly say that no – it doesn’t get much easier than that. Not to mention, it’s springtime (believe it or not), and cool, refreshing, light and lemony dishes chock full with spring vegetables are what this season is all about! Plus, do you know anyone who doesn’t like pasta salad? I didn’t think so.

While a bright and satisfying pasta or rice dish can be a great focal point for a meal, it really goes better hand in hand with a complimentary protein dish. The citrus flavors in this particular pasta salad pair very nicely with poultry, and would make it the perfect side dish for a light crispy baked chicken breast, or a herbacious sautéed chicken dish, like the fennel-butter chicken recipe below.

Orzo Salad with Cherry Tomatoes and Herbs – Serves 4 to 6

(Based on a Italian Alfresco Dinner Party Menu from Epicurious.com)

  • 8 ounces orzo (rice-shaped pasta; about 1 1/4 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons Sherry wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/4 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3/4 cup chopped green onions
  • 1/2 cup sliced pitted oil-cured olives
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

To start, bring a medium sized pot of water to a boil. Salt liberally and cook the orzo until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse under cold water, then drain well. Transfer to a medium bowl and cool.

While the orzo is cooking, whisk together vinegar and lemon juice in small bowl, and gradually whisk in the oil to make a vinaigrette. Pour the dressing over orzo and toss to coat. Mix in the remaining tomatoes, olives, green onions and herbs, and toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. This can be served immediately, or refrigerated and served cold the next day – either way is deliciouso!

And then – the chicken…

Sautéed Chicken with Fennel Butter – Serves 4

This dish is composed of two main components – the chicken, and the fennel mustard butter that perfumes and flavors it.

For the Fennel-mustard butter, you’ll need:

  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 garlic clove, minced

For the chicken, you’ll need:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 6 skinless boneless chicken breast halves. Alternatively, you could use a whole chicken, broken down, and use only the breasts and thighs for this recipe
  • 4 cups thinly sliced radicchio
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers

T0 start, prepare the fennel compound butter. Toast the fennel seeds in small skillet over high heat until they begin to brown and are fragrant, about 1 minute. Place in spice mill and grind to coarse powder, or use a mortar and pestle to grind.

Transfer the ground fennel to a small bowl, and add the butter, lemon juice, mustard and garlic. Stir to blend, and season with salt and pepper. If using immediately, set aside; if not, cover and refrigerate immediately.

Now, on to the chicken. Make the marinade by whisking oil, lemon juice, and garlic in small bowl to blend. Place the chicken pieces (again, highly recommend using breasts and thighs in this recipe for some variation) in medium glass baking dish. Season each side of the chicken with salt and pepper, and pour the oil mixture over the chicken, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Once the chicken is well marinated, heat a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken with some of marinade to each skillet in batches, being sure not to overcrowd the pan; sauté until cooked through, about 3 – 4 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to platter and place a teaspoon of fennel-mustard butter atop each chicken breast. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked, then cover platter with foil to keep warm.

Melt the remaining (about 1/4 cup) mustard-fennel butter in the skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in radicchio and capers; sauté until radicchio just begins to wilt, about 1 minute. Serve the chicken breasts over the radicchio, alongside the orzo salad and some mixed greens with a light vinaigrette. Serve with a light, crisp and fruity Pinot Grigio!

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As some of you who read EpicureanBliss on the reg might know, yesterday was a pretty exciting day for me and the blog. Yesterday I finally began the latest, greatest adventure in my life – Culinary School! That’s right, at long last I am a fully official matriculating Culinary Arts student at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City!! I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited, despite the fact that this amazing new reality has hardly had a chance to sink in yet.

My first day of classes (last night) was pretty excellent – I got to meet the rest of my eight classmates, who I’m the youngest among by far, and also got $800 worth of stainless steel and sharp as diamond knives (I’ll never feel unsafe on the subway again). I have to admit, we all felt sort of like it was Christmas morning.

Sadly, though, slipping our new Wusthofs into their blade guards was as much action as we saw yesterday, and I won’t have any straight-from-culinary-school recipes (or cooking blunders) to share for at least another week. That being said, I did come across a wonderful new dish right in my very own hallway-of-a-kitchen last weekend that I wanted to share with the web.

But to begin, I have to go back to my grocery shopping trip about a week ago. There I was, milling about Trader Joe’s, feeling pretty good about the weekly staples I was picking up. I had wheat bread, Wasa crackers, even a box of Puffins Cinnamon cereal, despite the fact that cereal never lasts long in my apartment. And just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about carbs (I’m a pizza and chinese food girl, come on now), I looked up in a crowded aisle of the Flatiron Trader Joe’s, and saw this beauty:

It looked so new, so different and enticing, delicious and maybe even slightly good for you? Plus, thanks to the miracle that is Trader Joe’s, it was only about two bucks! I obviously quickly snagged it off the shelf and got it home as quickly as I could.

After that, I got to plotting for a way to incorporate the Israeli couscous into my Friday night dinner in, which has quickly replaced Friday-night dinners out with student loan payments looming in the not-so-distant future. I poked around the web, researched recipes, agonized a fair bit (it’s my process), but in the end, I lingered over what was still fresh in my fridge and appealing in my pantry, and winged it. That’s sort of what happens when you try cooking Middle Eastern food on a Friday night after drinking a fairly strong Vodka-Soda with mint. Anyway, since my palate was slightly unreliable at that point, I’ll assure you that other’s vouched for this dish’s dilectability – plus, since the couscous is packed with fiber, and this dish gets its flavor from herbs and spices, not fat, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating it. More room for those fun Friday night cocktails, right?

Israeli Couscous with Raisins and a Cinnamon-Cumin Dressing (Makes 4 sides)

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup of Israeli couscous
  • 1 cup of water, boiling
  • 1/2 cup of chopped grape or baby heirloom tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup freshly chopped mint
  • 1/4 cup of freshly chopped red onion
  • 2 tablespoons of white or regular balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

To start, cook couscous according to the instructions on the box. If you (for some strange reason) have the couscous but don’t have the box, here’s how it works: You cook Israeli couscous with a 1 to 1 ratio of grain to water. If you want to make 1 cup of dry couscous, you’ll need to bring 1 cup of water to a boil on the stove (covered tightly). Meanwhile, in the bottom of a medium saucepan, saute the dry couscous in a little non-stick cooking spray or olive oil over medium-low heat until the couscous begins to turn a light golden brown – about five minutes.

Once the couscous is golden, add the boiling water and bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat so the mixture is simmering. Cover tightly and allow to cook, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking, for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender.

Meanwhile, prepare all of your “mix-ins.” Combine cumin, cinnamon, vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil,  whisk to blend, and season with salt and pepper. Mix in the chopped red onion, and your dressing is complete!

I prefer this dish room temperature, or even cold the next day, so I allowed the couscous to cool slightly before the final step. Once cooled to room temperature, add the raisins, mint, tomatoes, and dressing to couscous. Toss to coat, and serve alongside some lovely grilled lamb chops, or balsamic chicken breast.

Oh, and don’t forget those mint vodka fizzes (muddle mint and lime juice, then add 1 part vodka to 3 parts club soda over ice, or stronger if you can handle it). That part is definitely crucial. Enjoy :)

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Getting to the Good Stuff: Risotto

Once upon a time, a very wise woman posed the question, “Isn’t delayed gratification the definition of maturity?”

Okay, so actually Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie Bradshaw asked that question on the show “Sex and The City.” But all passe pop culture references aside, this question holds some serious weight for anyone with one foot in the “adult world.” As we enter adulthood and discover its ins and outs, we find that many of life’s greatest rewards require a good deal of patience: the perfect apartment you spend months hunting for on Craigslist; a killer promotion that you killed yourself for two years over; that dream job that took you back to school again… There’s a reason why adults are always saying things like “it was worth the wait,” and “patience is a virtue” – after surviving your twenties, my guess is you be able to know this truth deep down in your bones.

Which brings us to Risotto. Risotto is a very grown-up dish. It’s sophisticated, it’s complex, some might even reckon to call it thought-provoking. You’ll find it on the menu of fine restaurants, where it arrives laden with slivers of truffles, and only your very adult salary can afford to order it. Renditions of it are perfumed with fine dry white wine and thyme, two ingredients that don’t enter most home cooks’ refrigerators until their college years are long gone. Risotto is a dish with which you can impress your new boss, new love, new in-laws, or new friends. You know, all of those new “adult-life” who you can no longer count on your flip cup skills to win over.

And, like the experiences of adulthood, risotto will also try your patience.

This is a dish that will make you ask, are we there yet? Okay – so you can’t leave it alone for a moment, or it will burn. But just when you think you’ve got the constant stirring thing down, you discover that over stirring this just a bit will make it too soupy. Eventually you realize that making a good risotto requires striking a balance between attentiveness and relinquishing of control, with a dash of intuition thrown in for good measure. And, like adulthood, you can count on a large glass of wine (or cocktail, let’s be honest) and the company of your friends to get you through the risotto-making process in one piece, and be there to join in celebrating (read: eating) your achievement in the end.

Okay, enough parallels. I promise, this is not as hard as it sounds ;)

When making Mushroom Risotto, the first thing you want to do is mis en place, or prep your ingredients. While this is always a good idea when preparing a meal, it’s especially important to have everything sliced and diced in advance when making risotto, since it does require so much attention. So, gather the good stuff and set it all out on your counter. You’ll need some low-sodium chicken broth, olive oil, unsalted butter, shallots and garlic, some arborio rice (i.e. “risotto rice”), dry white wine, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, and parsley. Oh, and because too much healthiness will kill a person, some heavy cream and parmesan cheese (full ingredient list with measurements at end of post).

Did I say mushrooms? Right. This is a mushroom risotto, so you’ll need some mushrooms. Actually, a lot of mushrooms – the more mushrooms, the better. We mixed chanterelles and baby portobellos for our rendition, and this was an outrageously good combination. I highly recommend staying away from white button mushrooms if you favor a more complex and flavorful risotto. Springing for the good stuff will be a few extra dollars well spent.

Once you’ve chopped your shallots, minced your thyme, and measured everything out, you should be ready to get going. Start by setting up a medium saucepan, and bringing the chicken stock to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to very low – this will keep the stock hot, which it needs to be for this to work properly.

At the same time, in a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil and melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and cook, stirring until fragrant and soft, about 3 minutes.

Then, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until wilted and their liquid is evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes.

Once the mushrooms have softened nicely, add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the grains are opaque. This should take about 1 minute, but keep an eye on the heat to ensure the grains get moistened, but don’t burn.

Next add the thyme, salt, pepper, and white wine (and pour yourself a glass if you haven’t already), and cook, stirring, until nearly all the wine has evaporated.

Mmmm. Who doesn’t love thyme? It’s like cooking with teeny little Christmas trees. Wonderful.

Anyway…..

Now, it’s time to grow. Give your arms a good stretch and prepare yourself, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Little by little, start to add the stock to the rice (about half- to three-quarters of a cup at a time) and cook, stirring constantly, until the stock is nearly all evaporated. Continue adding more stock a half a cup at a time as the previous addition is nearly absorbed, until the rice is tender and the risotto is creamy.

The whole process will probably take about a half hour, and once you’re nearing the end of your stock supply, taste the risotto – it should be cooked through (not aldente at all – this isn’t pasta), creamy, and fluffy. At ICE, we learned the trick of dragging your spoon through the risotto against the bottom of the pan to create a “path,” and if the path “stays put” – that is to say, the rice doesn’t immediately rush back in to fill the cleared space – then the risotto is done.

Once you’ve reached this point, stir in the heavy cream, 1/4 cup of the cheese, and the parsley and mix well. Remove the pot from the heat, give the risotto a final taste test, and adjust the seasonings as needed. If you’re feeling fancy, stir in some truffle oil or even some panchetta. But regardless, you must serve this immediately and top each portion with a sprinkling of the remaining cheese.

Now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You might even be an adult now, but if you are, it was certainly worth the wait.

Full List of Ingredients With Quantities (Serves 4)

2.5 to 3 cups chicken stock, or canned low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

12 ounces assorted mushrooms, wiped clean and thinly sliced, stems removed and reserved for making stock, if desired

1 cups arborio rice

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan

1 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

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Things don’t always work out in the kitchen. Sometimes, even the best laid plans go awry, and all the preparation in the world can’t save you from the inevitable doom that comes with this thought: you’ve invited guests over for dinner, but dinner might just not get served.

Such was the scenario that faced me last night. With three hungry dinner guests at my back, I struggled with the absolute reality that the meal that I had planned for – the one I had spent hours preparing in advance, fantasized about serving, knew would be the best thing I made this season – was literally turning into kindergarten paste in front of me, and there was very little I could do about it. And hungry friends were waiting.

Let me back track.

About a week ago, I bought a squash. Remember me?

After letting the under-ripe squash hang out on the counter for a few days, I decide it was prime time to roast this baby, and I sliced it in half and tossed it in the oven. If you’ve forgotten how easy and magical it is to roast a squash, you can get a quick refresher here.

After finalizing plans for a small, casual dinner party at Cara and my apartment for last night, I began scheming. What to make with another roasted acorn squash? I could make my soup, but that took all the fun out of experimenting with a new recipe. Not to mention, I had two one-pound bags of double-zero flour collecting dust on top of my refrigerator, a relic of my father’s post-Italy baked goods obsession. But what to make with flour and squash… Squash bread? Not quite fit for a main course. Squash pizza? Despite the beauty of Keste’s pizza with butternut squash cream, it just felt a bit outlandish. Then, it came to me.

Handmade Acorn Squash Ravioli. An autumn dish that was simple enough to make – I already had the electric pasta maker, after all – that would work well as a main course and showcase both ingredients. I was sold, and immediately set to work researching various recipes for the perfect pasta dough, squash-based ravioli fillings, and a light sauce that would compliment but not overpower the dish.

With so much preparation, how could so much go wrong? Well, that’s lesson number one of the kitchen: be ready for anything, because just a few seconds could turn your whole plan upside down.

But that was the last thing on my mind two nights ago when I set out to prepare the ravioli in advance. I already had the acorn squash roasted, so I quickly pureed it and added it to some butter and garlic that I had sauteing over medium heat.

The squash sauteed until it was thick and dry, and then the remaining filling ingredients were added; soft, creamy ricotta cheese, sharp parmesan reggiano, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and some grinds of fresh cracked black pepper and sea salt. I whipped and stirred the filling over the low flame until it became thick and creamy, letting most of the liquid cook off but leaving the mixture still somewhat moist.

While the filling cooled on the stove, I assembled the pasta maker, measured out my double-zero extra fine flour, and dumped it into the vast cavity of the machine. In went two whole eggs and a drizzle of olive oil, and I snapped the cover into place. With one hand, I reached around the machine to flip the mixing switch into the “On” position, and eagerly peered down to watch my dough begin to come together. Only one problem – nothing happened!

I figured the outlet must be blown, and I tried four more outlets before realizing the problem must be with the machine. After adjusting the switch several times, the pasta maker remained completely immobile, utterly lifeless. In my exasperation, I began to unscrew the front of the cavity that held the flour and eggs so I could remove its contents to mix by hand.

And with that, the yolks of the eggs broke and spilled onto the counter as a puff of flour flew up into my face. Sticky yolk dripped angrily over the grating of the pasta maker and onto my countertop.

Now, it was on. Me versus pasta machine. I tilted the entire device onto its side and dumped the contents onto the counter, placed the machine, which was still dripping with egg, into the corner of my kitchen, and began kneading the dough furiously. Soon enough, a fairly ragged but resiliant ball of pasta dough had come together, which I quickly threw some plastic wrap around and stowed on the counter while I proceeded to scrub down my mess and reboot.

Like I said, kitchen improvisation should be relished.

Not so long later, I had rolled out my dough, cut it into 30 equal rounds using a measuring scoop as a stencil, and begun to fill each circle with the acorn squash – ricotta mixture. Everything began running seamlessly, and it went a little something like this:

Step 1: Roll out your dough until it is super thin and slightly transparent – we’re talking an eighth of an inch here.

Step 2: For square ravioli, cut long thin strips of dough about two inches wide, which will be layered around the filling and cut into squares. For half-moon (or round) shaped ravioli, cut circles using a glass or measuring cup as a stencil.

Step 3: Pause to admire your handiwork. This is a crucial part of the process, for the record.

Step 4: Add some squash filling to the center of the ravioli dough and using your finger, gently wet the rim of the dough with some water so the dough becomes slightly sticky.

Step 5: Fold the dough over the filling, press the edges down to bind them, and use a fork to seal the deal.

Step 6: I would imagine this step includes sprinkling the surface that you lay the ravioli on, and the tops of the ravioli themselves with some semolina flour. This prevents sticking. I did not do this. Read on….

With 30 perfect ravioli lined up neatly on wax paper, I wrapped my works of art in some more plastic wrap and placed them in the fridge for safe keeping until they would be served up tomorrow.

The following evening, things started off well…

There are few things in life that I believe cannot be fixed with butter (high cholesterol and weight issues, withstanding), and while I didn’t realize this little pot of heaven could be my saving grace at the time, melting up a stick over a nice, low flame is never a bad thing. Especially when you have this to pair it with:

Can you think of anything that goes better with butter than sage? I can’t. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that if butter were a plant, it would BE sage. This herb has such a rich, smooth flavor and velvety texture that is the perfect mate for the creaminess of butter, adding earthy low notes that elevate just about any dish sauced with this to the next level.

That’s right. Browned Butter Sage Sauce.

Making this is really as simple as melting a stick of butter over low heat, adding the torn up sage leaves, and then continuing to cook the butter at an extremely slow rolling simmer (and I mean barely simmering – I yanked this off the heat several times) until the butter begins to become a dark, rich caramel color. I was worried I wouldn’t know when it was done, but once it’s finished, trust me – you’ll know.

With the sauce ready, the water boiling, and my friends’ stomachs growling, it was go-time. I pulled the acorn-squash ravioli from the fridge and removed the plastic wrap with a flourish while my fellow-foodie-friend, Corinne, watched eagerly. But something was wrong…. The ravioli looked, well, wet.

I reached out to pick one up and place it as a tester in the boiling water, and my fingers sank right through the dough into the gooey filling beneath. Frantic, I began to struggle to scrape the soggy ravioli off the wax paper and quickly get them cooking, but it was fruitless. The ravioli were melting faster than polar ice caps in an Al Gore documentary, and there was nothing I could do to salvage them.

I glanced sheepishly at Corinne, and was about to say something about the great Thai place around the corner, when she said, “Well, what if we do this…”

And with that, she set to work, sprinkling the messy dough balls with flour and rolling them up into what could only be referred to as “dumplings.” She asked for brown sugar, and showed me how to sprinkle it out and roll the newly formed dumplings in it, then in flour, and then drop them into the boiling water to quickly puff up and cook. As we stood recovering the messy remnants of our soon-to-be supper, Corinne talked easily about what else could make this dish even better – a drizzle of honey over the dumplings; a soft sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs and more dark brown sugar right before serving; raisins added right into the filling, next time.

And with this, I learned one of the greatest lessons any amateur home cook can learn – Improvisation.

This might seem obvious, but I’m usually a cook with a plan. I have my ingredients laid out, and a recipe in my mind, if not on paper. I follow the instructions I’ve set for myself, and execute the dish the way I’ve come to understand that it should be made. When things fall apart in the kitchen and I’m the only one eating, I suck it up and make the most of the meal. But when cooking for others, if things go wrong, I claim defeat, and it’s usually the take-out menus I’m reaching for.

In the end, our dinner wound up being absolutely delicious. Our “Corinne-Acorn Dumplings” – a name only two girls fueled by several glasses of Pinot Noir could come up with – were smothered in not only the browned butter sage sauce, but sprinkled with brown sugar, breadcrumbs, and a small douse of honey. Next time, nutmeg and cinnamon will make it even better. As we ate slowly and gratefully, Corinne suggested we do this again next week, so we could take a stab at really perfecting the recipe. It wasn’t getting it right that mattered most, but enjoying the process of experimenting along the way.

In that moment I had thought, this sauce saved the dish. But really, Corinne saved the dish – and that in and of itself is a tribute to how optimism and improvisation are the two best tools any chef can take into the kitchen.

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