Red Beans & Rice

Red Beans & Rice RecipeA girl born and raised in New Jersey has little business chiming in about what makes a great pot of red beans & rice, let alone offer you a recipe. In fact, I can’t say that I’ve even had this dish more than a handful of times and, I’m sorry to say, about one third of those instances were from a fast food chicken joint that was on the way home from work during my days spent living and working in Washington, D.C. When I have had red beans and rice out at a restaurant or, best of all, from a friend’s kitchen, I’ve savored it for its smokey, bold flavors, but also for the comfort and warmth it brings. Red beans and rice just feels homey even when its origins are far from any place I’ve ever held an address.

Before making these, I devoted more research to their recipe than I care to admit. I’ve been pinning and clipping recipes for years, but I’ve also tagged a few cookbooks and scribbled down notes when I’ve seen it on menus, in magazines, or featured on a cooking show. My archive of red beans & rice recipes is impressive, but to be honest, the thought of trying to create a pot myself felt intimidating. For one, I’ve never made dried beans before of any variety, nor have I seen my mother do it – an assurance that always lends me confidence vicariously.

Red Beans & RiceWould I be able to cook them to the correct amount of doneness? Would my beans be bland and like stones or mushy and without texture? I worried about making a big pot only to lose it on the beans and have wasted all of the very precious ingredients they call for. See, even if red beans and rice is a fairly cheap dish to make, the idea of ruining even a $2 ham shank and a piece of smoked sausage is enough to leave me stalled.

I finally turned to my grandmother for council one day recently while on the phone discussing her prior travels through the American South with my grandfather a few years before his death in 1992. She shared some stories I’d never heard before. Charming details about a banana cream pie slice eaten for breakfast in Louisiana and the best peach jam she’d ever had in Tennessee; one she continues to chase in her annual attempt at making homemade preserves each July.

Red Beans & RiceI sprung it on her suddenly: “Did you wind up eating any red beans and rice while you were traveling? I’ve always wanted to make them, but beans! Dried beans! They’re intimidating!” In her usual way, which is all things loving, wily, and derisive simultaneously, she replied, not missing a beat, “Dried beans? You’re worried about dried beans? An idiot could cook dried beans!”

Well, then.

And so it was, one idiot, NJ born and raised, pulled from this recipe and that, with the confidence of at least two generations behind her, and made the tastiest pot of red beans and rice she’s eaten yet. Do not be the girl who stalls on this one; they are too good to put off even one more day.

Red Beans & Rice
Yields 4-6 servings

Ingredients:
8oz. of red beans soaked overnight and drained
2 Tablespoons of bacon grease (You can substitute 1 Tablespoon of olive oil + 1 Tablespoon of butter)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb smoked kielbasa, cut into 1/2″ coins
1 smoked ham shank
1 bay leaf
Celery salt & black pepper
Cayenne pepper to taste (I used 1/2 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon of sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of oregano
1 teaspoon of thyme
3-5 dashes of Liquid Smoke (optional)
2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce
4 cups of chicken broth + water to cover
2 scallions, chopped for garnish
Cooked white rice
Hot sauce

Directions:
The night before, pour the dried beans into a medium bowl and cover with water by an inch or two. Allow to sit for at least 8 hours. The next day, put a large pot. or dutch oven. over medium heat and add the olive oil & butter. Add the onions and peppers and sauté for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. After slicing the kielbasa, add it to the pot and allow to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the kielbasa is cooking, find a bowl or measuring cup that can hold at least 6 cups of liquid. Into it, pour the chicken broth, Worcestershire sauce, and liquid smoke; set aside. Raise the heat slightly under the pot and add the ham shank and sear on both sides for 2 minutes each. Add the bay leaf, oregano, thyme, paprikas, celery salt, and black & cayenne peppers to the meat and vegetable mixture and stir to combine. Once incorporated, pour in the liquids and stir together well, being certain to scrape the bottom of the pot with your spoon to loosen the pieces of meat, vegetables, and spices that have cooked down. If needed, add enough water to cover the shank and then stir in the drained beans.

Allow the mixture to come to a rolling boil and cook for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to simmer, stir thoroughly, cover pot and allow to cook for another 30 minutes. After a half hour has passed, remove the lid and allow to simmer for another hour, stirring it occasionally every 20-30 minutes. Check the doneness of the beans and cook an additional half hour or more depending on your preferred texture. If the mixture seems dry or not loose enough, add water, 1/4 cup at a time and stir to combine. When the beans have reached the desired doneness, remove the ham shank (it may be in a few pieces), and use a potato masher to smoosh (technical term) some of the beans to create a creamy consistency. You can also do this with the back of a spoon on the side of the pot. Allow the shank to cool slightly and then shred the meat. Discard any bones and add the meat back to the pot.

To serve, spoon the bean mixture over a bed of white rice and top with chopped scallions. Add a few dashes of hot sauce if desired.

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Chicken Tortilla SoupLately, I’ve been making these super organized, really thought out grocery lists to try and maximize our meals. For me, this means two main things: 1) Focusing on fresh ingredients that really get me excited about cooking and 2) Making sure I develop meals around our schedules so that it’s not as appealing to just order take-out several nights a week. As a result, I’ve been gathering easy ingredients to always have on-hand for quick, satisfying meals – hey there, easy breakfast-for-dinner nights! – and making sure I have a veggie & noodle salad of some kind, or an easy soup, in the fridge and ready to go when hunger pangs come calling.

This chicken tortilla soup is one of my absolute favorite soups, first and foremost, because it is just so tasty. Every time I make it, I exclaim that we should eat it once a week and that is so not an exaggeration – it’s really that good. Plus, it fits my new maximization mantra of having fresh ingredients and flavors, while being a fairly adaptable meal for different schedules and levels of attention. While the recipe first came into my life as an option for the slow cooker, I found myself this week with all the makings, but without having had the forethought to put it together in the morning. Fail face.

Chicken Tortilla SoupSure, I could have waited for the next day, but this soup is so good that it possesses my brain every time I get ready to make it so that there’s this constant thought loop of “Is it chicken tortilla soup time yet?” After a bit of adaptation and messing about, it was chicken tortilla soup time and only within about 75 minutes for prep & cooking combined! Which means that this delicious, satisfying, feel-so-good soup is now even easier and faster to get from fridge, to pot, to bowl, to face. And that’s something I fully support.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
Yields 4-6 servings; adapted from here.

Ingredients:
Vegetable oil
3-4 bone-in, skin-on split chicken breasts
Salt & pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 15oz can of petite diced tomatoes with juice
1 10oz can enchilada sauce
1 4oz can chopped green chile peppers
1 14.5oz of chicken stock
2 cups of corn (fresh, frozen, or canned will do)
1/2 cup of red onion, diced
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
3 large flour tortillas cut into 1/4-inch strips (crushed tortilla chips are also acceptable)
1 lime cut into wedges

Directions:
In a heavy-bottom pot, drizzle in enough vegetable oil to cover the surface and apply medium-high heat. Generously season both sides of the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. When the oil begins to ripple, add the chicken breasts to the pot skin-side down. Allow to cook for 5 minutes or until they have developed a brown crust. Flip chicken breasts and cook on other side for another 5 minutes. Remove chicken breasts from the pan and set aside. Reduce heat to medium and add onion and garlic, sauteeing for 4-5 minutes until the onions begin to turn translucent. Season with salt and pepper and add bay leaf, cumin, and chili powder. Stir to combine and allow spices to toast for 3 minutes with the onions and garlic. Turn heat back up to medium high and slowly stir in the chicken stock, releasing any brown bits from the bottom of the pot with your spoon as you pour. Add the tomatoes, green chile peppers, and enchilada sauce and stir together. Add chicken breasts to pot and any juices that have collected while it was resting. Cover pot allowing only a tiny vent for steam and bring to a low boil. Adjust temperature accordingly and allow to simmer like this for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, approximately 15 minutes more. Remove soup lid and add corn. When chicken is done, remove from pot and rest until it is cool enough to handle. Allow the soup to continue cooking, uncovered, on medium heat so that it reduces some.

In the meantime, you can prep the red onion, cilantro, limes, and tortilla strips for the garnish. In a small-to-medium deep pot, pour in about 1-inch of vegetable oil and apply medium-high heat. In the meantime, slice your flour tortillas in half and then slice them across into a series of 1/4-inch, thin strips. Test the oil by putting the end of one of the tortillas into the oil and see if it sizzles. If so, drop one in and test it. You want it to achieve golden brownness in about 15 seconds. If it doesn’t get there, discard strip and let oil heat up a bit more. If it gets dark much faster, lower the temperature of the oil accordingly. When ready, add a small handful of the strips at a time and, watching them carefully, gently move them around the hot oil with tongs as they turn golden and crisp up. As you remove the strips from the oil, drain them on paper towels and salt them lightly while they’re still hot and fresh. Finish the remaining strips and set aside.

Pull the chicken off the bones and discard them along with the skin. Shred the chicken meat and add back to soup. Allow to warm and re-incorporate for about 5-7 minutes. Turn soup off and cover until ready to serve. When ready to eat, ladle soup into bowls and top with diced red onion, cilantro, a squeeze of lime juice, and fresh tortilla strips.

Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad

Kale & Brussels Sprout SaladIt’s probably of little surprise, but thanks to me, our DVR is completely overrun with cooking shows. I will watch almost anything on The Cooking Channel, PBS, and Food Network, save for those ridiculous grocery game shows and anything starring Alton Brown. Alton Brown is seriously the worst. Did you see him on that Thanksgiving Live special where he was hella obnoxious and a misogynistic ass to Giada? Girl…

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I caught the end of one of Food Network’s new shows, Farmhouse Rules, where host Nancy Fuller (who I can only assume is the network’s replacement for Paula Deen, given her aesthetic and cooking style) was preparing a kale salad. As far as I’m concerned, kale salad can do no wrong. I have about four I can make right now that are knock-out good. Trendy super food, whatever, kale is just tasty. Mixed with some kind of vinaigrette, maybe a little something sweet like golden raisins or apple, salty cheese, or smoky spices? Unbelievably good! 

But with this particular kale salad, this new, modern Paula was adding raw brussels sprouts into the same bowl and, admittedly, that gave me a bit of pause. Listen, I will eat brussels sprouts five times a week if you give them to me roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. They get all browned, sweet and nutty, and before I know it, I’ve eaten what’s leftover on the baking sheet while cleaning up the kitchen. I love brussels sprouts, but I’d never eaten them raw and along with an already fairly tough raw green, such as kale, I was skeptical.

Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad

But it turns out, Miss New Paula was on to something and together, the kale and brussels sprouts made a delicious, quite fancy looking salad that even my vegetable-phobic beau ate with great zeal. This one is a total keeper and brings me up to five kale salads I can make with ease and from memory. Am I catch or what?

Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad
Yields 4-6 servings; Adapted from here.

Ingredients:
1lb. of brussels sprouts
1 bunch of kale
2 cloves of garlic
1/3 cup of diced red onion
1 cup of pecorino romano, grated
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons of dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon of orange juice
1/2 teaspoon of honey
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1/2 pistachios, toasted and chopped
Salt & pepper

Directions:
In a medium sized bowl, grate garlic and add dijon mustard, honey, lemon zest, lemon juice, orange juice, salt & pepper. Mix until combined and then drizzle in olive oil while whisking. When all is incorporated, taste for seasoning and then set aside. In a large bowl, shred 1lb of brussels sprouts on a box grater. De-vein kale leaves. Stack kale leaves on top of one another, several at a time, and roll into a tight cigar before slicing into thin ribbons. Add kale to bowl with brussels sprouts and follow with thinly sliced red onion. Add dressing to the vegetables and add cheese. Toss to combine. Allow to sit for 15-20 minutes so that kale and brussels sprouts lose some of their toughness and flavors meld. Add in pistachios and toss once more before serving. Delicious cold or at room temperature.

Pasta with Mascarpone, Lemon, Spinach, & Pine Nuts

After all of that complaining I went and did about the length of winter, today the thermometer reached 98°F. In Minneapolis. In May. Normally, such temperatures turn me into a wild beast of a thing, but truth be told, I was only a little bit sorry for today’s heat. While the meows were seeking out cool, dark corners to lay in and Bear was putting in extra screens and moving fans around, I knew that, finally, the time had come to make this pasta dish! I’ve been holding onto the recipe from the Kitchn since it was published last October, waiting for the weather to warm back up and, more importantly, for it to coincide with the sale of mascarpone cheese! The latter seeming, at points, even less likely than spring’s eventual thaw.

Being the lucky lady that I am, I found a sale on a tub of the good stuff last week, though I won’t deny tapping my foot and mulling over whether or not the time was yet nye. Turns out, it was and a sensible purchase was had! When I saw the temperature was going up this week, I knew the time was upon us to indulge.

Have you ever had pasta with a sauce that is heavy on the lemon? If you’re not shy about the idea, try it. You’ll ask yourself why you don’t eat pasta with lemon-something-or-other all the time. Take this sauce, for example. There’s so much brightness from the fresh lemon juice and the lemon zest, but then the mascarpone gets stirred in and it’s creamy, dreamy with just a little bit of sweetness to take away some of that punch from the citrus. The spinach wilts into the hot pasta, so it’s soft and earthy, but again, nestled throughout this smooth, velvety sauce that gets a little kick with some garlic, fresh cracked pepper, and just the right amount of parmesan cheese. The toasted nuts join a little fresh lemon zest on top and another turn of the pepper mill.

Every forkful feels like the perfect bite. It is as elegant a dish as it is easy. The ingredients are few, the method simple (and great for warm days), and the clean-up is virtually effortless. I used one pot, a bowl, and a colander only. Pro-tip: Mix the sauce in the same bowl you’ll serve it in! You’ll have one less bowl to clean and, better yet, your pasta be coated by every last drop!

Spaghetti with Mascarpone, Lemon, Spinach, & Pine Nuts
Serves 4 as a main course; Adapted from here.

Ingredients:
2 lemons, zested & juiced (I used 5 tablespoons of juice)
8-ounces of mascarpone cheese
1lb of spaghetti
1 very large bunch of fresh spinach (approximately 6 cups), chopped
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese
Salt & fresh pepper
3/4 cup of pine nuts, toasted

Directions:
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. While waiting for the water to bubble, prepare the sauce. Combine 3/4 of the lemon zest, lemon juice, mascarpone, garlic powder, parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper and mix until fairly smooth. If you have a few lumps, they’ll work their way out when they hit the hot pasta. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to toast your pine nuts while waiting for the water and pasta, as well. Add them to a dry pan and set over medium heat until they’re are lightly browned, giving them a shake every 2-3 minutes. When you can really start to smell them, they’re done.

Cook the pasta. With a minute or so left before the pasta reaches “al dente,” add the spinach. When the pasta is finished, scoop about a cup and a half of pasta water from the pot and then drain the noodles. Add the noodles to the bowl with the sauce and add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water and stir together. Add more pasta water until a creamy consistency is achieved. Top the pasta with the remaining lemon zest, the toasted pine nuts, and a few cracks of fresh pepper. Additional parmesan can be added, if desired.

Bacon Dijon Deviled Eggs

Well, readers, here we are: one day past the week where few could escape the notion, or practice, of hard boiling and dyeing eggs, and one week further into spring where, at least in the Northeast, the days have finally been warming up a little bit. On Saturday, I walked around without my coat on for a solid 30 minutes until the sun ducked behind a cloud and I, miserably, trudged back to the car to get it before resuming the mini antiquing jaunt I took with my mom to a neighboring town. Lion, lamb, I know.

This is all to say that ’tis the season for doing something with hard boiled eggs, which, when I’m faced with, always results in deviled eggs. I resisted deviled eggs until I was about 20, even though my own mother was rumored by family and friends alike to make absolutely delicious ones. When I finally gave in, I realized several things: 1) Everyone loves deviled eggs and I was totally missing out and 2) You can mix almost anything into a standard deviled egg recipe and it only makes them more delicious. So many variations can be born, which brings me to my favorite point about deviled eggs: depending on context even more than ingredients, they can be considered fancy fare or not!

Take these bacon dijon deviled eggs (that even Ollie would, apparently, be interested in eating. Cat bomb!). On that plate up there, with their little pickled onion garnish (I have a whole beautiful quart of these to use, y’all), they look pretty enough for a tea party or some sort of shower. But put them on a table next to some ribs and corn and it’s summer in the backyard being sweaty and lazy with your pals.

Deviled eggs never disappoint and this version is no exception. Who doesn’t want a little smoky, crispy bacon stirred into their eggs alongside the gentle bite of dijon mustard? That sounds like the start of a perfect egg sandwich! I know not everyone will be inspired to go so far as making the pickled onions, but let me just argue for the extra step by simply saying that their addition to these deviled eggs is kismet. The little burst of pickling liquid and onion juice, which so nicely cuts through the richness of egg yolk, mayo, and bacon, is a pairing that shouldn’t be missed. If you do forego the pickled onions, these deviled eggs certainly will not disappoint on their own; though you could always add a little slice or mince of dill pickle to the tops, which would do the job, too.


Bacon Dijon Deviled Eggs with Pickled Onions
Yields 24 halves

Ingredients:
1 dozen eggs
1/3 cup of mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons of dijon mustard
4-6 pieces of thick sliced bacon, cooked crispy and crumbled
1 Tablespoon of minced onion or dehydrated onion flakes
1/8 teaspoon of smoked paprika
Salt & pepper to taste
Pickled onions to garnish, optional

Directions:
Several hours before serving, or better yet, the night before, hard boil the eggs. Using eggs purchased at least a week in advance will help with the peeling process later, as older eggs shed their shell much easier.

Put all 12 eggs in a heavy-bottom pot and cover with cold water by at least an inch. Add a pinch of salt to the water and bring to a boil. Once the eggs begin boiling, cover with lid, remove from heat, and allow to stand for 15 minutes. Drain hot water and fill the pot with cold water until the eggs can be handled. After several minutes remove them from the pot (which will eventually turn the water warm again due to residual heat – you don’t want this to happen!) and gently crack the shells a bit all over. Transfer the eggs to a big bowl of cold water and allow to sit until completely cooled. Pre-cracking the shells here will allow them to loosen as they finish cooling in the second bowl of water.

When the eggs are cooled, crack further and peel. I find peeling them under running water in the sink helps remove the shells easily, too. When finished, slice each egg in half lengthwise, putting the yolks in a clean, dry bowl and lay the whites on the plate you plan to serve them on. In the bowl with the yolks, use a fork to crumble all of the egg yolks. Add a small trickle of water, about a teaspoon, to the yolks to help them cream together a bit before adding the remaining ingredients. Add minced onion, salt and pepper, mayonnaise, dijon mustard, and smoked paprika. Blend until fairly smooth. Fold in the chopped bacon and fill the egg white halves. When finished, garnish each with a slice of pickled onion.

Spicy Sausage & Kale Tortellini Soup

Lucky for you if Spring has sprung in your neck of the woods. In Minneapolis, the snow is still coming down in some accumulation every other day, the wind that blows is still icy rather than cool, and the back parking lot of our apartment building has a covering of ice so thick, you could preserve a dinosaur in it. Please, goddess of all things blogging, let it be our last winter here.

While Minneapolis is a great city and saw me through my grad program with no shortage of laughter or love, the winters are killer and in a way that no New England winter ever was. I will take a Nor’easter over an Alberta Clipper any day. Oh, how I rue the day I was forced to finally learn the meaning of that phrase!

If I thought it’d ever see the light of day when posted on Pinterest, I might even consider naming this recipe Alberta Clipper soup, as it saw us through the tail end of one a week or so ago. With temperatures hovering around -15°F, it was clearly soup weather, but what kind? I wanted something that felt a little exciting, that brought some heat even if just on the palate, something different than the creamy soups of early winter and the clear, chicken-broth based, lighter ones that welcomed in the new year.

When I pulled Italian sausage from the freezer, I nearly ditched soup altogether and made sausage and peppers, but started thinking about roasted red peppers in the jar, how they make such a deep, creamy soup base if you treat them real nice. I remembered I had kale par-boiled and weatherproofed in the freezer just waiting for me to plunge it into something hot – you can certainly use fresh, though, and just plan on cooking it a bit longer until it is wilted. The rest of the soup came together easily: a heavy dose of red pepper flakes to warm the throat and nose, Worcestershire sauce for beefiness, and plump little cheese tortellini simply because they’re delicious.

When the soup is nearly finished (before adding the sausage back in to simmer for a bit, before the tortellini join the party), I took some broth and the veggies that came with it to a separate bowl and gave it all a thorough pureeing with the immersion blender, though you could of course use a blender or food processor too. This resulted in about 2 cups of a thick (think chunky applesauce consistency) broth that when added back to the soup made the body of it all velvety. Our bowls were warm and ample.

This soup goes perfectly with good conversation, a sip or two of dry red wine, and a fireplace. Or, if you’re us, a DVR cached showing of the yule log. On mute.

Spicy Sausage & Kale Tortellini Soup
Yields 6-8 servings

Ingredients:
1lb of sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings and broken into 1-inch chunks (you can also roll them like meatballs)
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, diced very finely
1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of dried basil
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper to taste
4 cups of beef broth
4 cups of chicken broth
2 Tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 cups of fresh kale
2 cups of cheese tortellini, cooked separately*

Directions:
In an 8-quart stock pot, add 1 Tablespoon of oil and cook chunks of sausage over medium high until they are cooked through. Remove from the pot and set aside. Assess the bottom of the pot and add another tablespoon of oil if needed in order to sautee onion over medium heat until translucent. Add garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add red pepper flakes, dried basil, bay leaf, and salt & pepper to the onion mixture and allow to continue cooking for another minute or two being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the 8 cups of broth, the Worcestershire sauce, and put on a lid leaving it slightly ajar. Cook until the soup comes to a low boil. Add the kale and cook until wilted. Next, add the cooked sausage and cook an additional 5 minutes on medium-low. At this point, you can add the cooked tortellini to the soup and serve the whole pot as a meal or add the tortellini to individual bowls and ladle the hot soup on top. As per usual with soup, this is even better the next day!

*Note: I choose to cook my tortellini separately and add it to individual bowls rather than cooking it in the soup or adding it after it’s been cooked and storing it combined because I find pasta loses any texture when kept in the broth in the fridge. If this doesn’t bother you or you prefer your pasta soft, feel free to add it earlier or cook it in the broth.

Jalapeño Creamed Spinach

When I was growing up, vegetables were three things: plentiful, cheap, and usually canned. So, on the occasional night when my mom could be seen defrosting a tiny square box in the microwave and wringing it’s contents out over the sink, it meant creamed spinach was on the menu and that felt fancy. Despite it’s name, though, the closest my mother’s version came to any kind of dairy was a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. That’s it. Just those two ingredients. Still, we all happily ate it and will do the same until our dying days. That’s family.

I first had a version of jalapeño creamed spinach a few years ago at Brasa, a rotisserie restaurant in Minneapolis that serves Creole-inspired comfort food. Everything I’ve ever eaten at Brasa has been delicious and tends to be the place we hit up for dinner as soon as the weather starts to turns warm and the patio opens. Their variety of braised and pulled meats is small – two chicken options, a pork, and a beef – but they’re done so exquisitely with mouthwatering rubs like garlic and lime. Their sides hold their own, too, and rival the meats for greatness, but if you’re asking me, nothing touches their creamed spinach with jalapeño. It is absurdly good.

After the first time I had it, I stopped at the grocery store on the way home (like a creamy-spinach-fueled lunatic) to pick up the ingredients I thought would help me to recreate it the following night. That first time, I came close, but it took some tweaking and then some cues from Laurie Colwin’s version in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen before the recipe developed to where it is now, which is at tasty. Yet, somehow, with all of my trial and error (and we happily ate every single “error”), it fell out of my rotation. That was until I saw Andrew Zimmern mention Brasa on Twitter this week and I was swiftly transported back to the night I made this final version and Bear finished the leftovers before they had even cooled enough to be refrigerated. (Side note: The photo above is actually from that very night, before we dug in! I discovered it in my online recipe file when I went to find the recipe today. Vintage Femme Fraîche, right there!)

This is creamed spinach the way it should be made; with milk, cheese, and butter. It’s rich, but the jalapeños cut through the heaviness of it in such a way that I can’t imagine them not being there. That vinegary, spicy bite aside the soft bitterness of the spinach, and the lusciousness of the creamy cheese sauce, is comfort food done right. If you’re looking for traditional, delicate creamed spinach, this is not that recipe. This is the side dish that threatens to outdo the whole meal, dessert included.

Jalapeño Creamed Spinach
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

Ingredients:
2 – 10oz. packages of chopped, frozen spinach, squeezed dry (reserve at least 1 cup of spinach liquid)
1/4 cup of yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic diced finely or put through a garlic press
1 stick of butter, divided in half
2 Tablespoonx of olive oil
2 Tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup of evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
3/4 teaspoon of celery salt
6oz. monterey jack cheese, cubed
1 – 4oz. can of diced jalapeños, drained (substitute canned green chiles for less spice)
1 1/2 cups of panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons of parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350°. Defrost the spinach and drain in a collander over a bowl, squeezing it into a tight ball until barely any liquid remains. In a medium-sized pot, melt 1/2 the stick of butter and add the flour, stirring constantly over medium heat until combined, forming a roux. Allow to cook for a solid minute in order to remove the raw flour flavor. Remove the roux from the pan and set aside. Add the olive oil to the pot and follow with the onions and garlic. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Allow the onions and the garlic to sweat and soften before adding the roux back in and allowing to combine for a minute or so. Next, add the spinach liquid and evaporated milk, slowly, whisking constantly until the mixture becomes smooth and thickens. Add the monterey jack cheese, the black pepper, and celery salt, and allow to combine until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Once the sauce has thickened, add the diced jalapeños and the spinach. The mixture should, at this point, be the consistency of a thick cheese sauce, like a spinach artichoke dip, and your spoon should follow it around the pot with little resistance. If it seems too thick, add another tablespoon or two of the remaining spinach liquid or evaporated milk.

Pour the spinach into a greased baking dish and set aside. In a small bowl, microwave the remaining 4T of butter until melted. Add a dash or two of black pepper, and the garlic powder; combine. Pour in the panko crumbs and the parmesan cheese and toss together, allowing the bread crumbs to absorb the butter mixture. Top the spinach with the bread crumbs and place in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until the spinach is hot and the top has browned slightly. Check the dish occasionally to make sure the crumbs are not browning too quickly and if so, cover with foil until the dish is heated through and is slightly bubbly at the edges. When finished, remove the spinach from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Italian Wedding Soup

There is something so comforting and yet energizing about Italian Wedding Soup. It’s warm and hearty, but not weighed down with creams and cheeses. Not that there is anything wrong with cream and cheese, of course. This is the kind of food, though, that you feel strengthened by. Dark, leafy spinach – so rich in vitamins – layered throughout clean, flavorful chicken stock. Carrots cut into little jewels, nestled around light, bite-sized pork meatballs. Simple. Bright. Nourishing. Nothing, in fact, like an Italian wedding!* It’s all the things a good end-of-winter soup should be.

I make these little pork meatballs the same way I would meatballs for spaghetti with the exception being that these are made exclusively of ground pork, as opposed to pork and beef, and are studded with fresh tarragon. The latter of which, with parsley too, makes the soup lightly herby in flavor and so aromatic. Usually, I’d suggest cooking the noodles separately and adding them on a bowl-by-bowl basis in order to not have them lose any and all texture as the soup sits, but because I lessen the amount of noodles called for in this recipe and, coupled with the small size of the pasta, this extra step is unnecessary. I promised simple, didn’t I?

*I say this about Italian weddings as a born-and-raised Italian-American femme from New Jersey. My Super Sweet Sixteen happened for all of my cousins out on Long Island and then happened again when they all got married. As a result, you could say I know my way around smoke machines, stretch Humvees, and Venetian tables.


Italian Wedding Soup
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Italian Wedding Soup; Serves 6

Ingredients:
For the meatballs
1lb ground pork (feel free to sub ground chicken, turkey, or even beef)
2/3 cup dried Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
3 Tablespoons milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt & pepper

For the soup
2 tablespoons good olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 cup minced yellow onion
1 cup carrots, diced
3/4 cup celery, diced
10 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 cup small pasta such as rings, tubetini or stars
12 ounces baby spinach
Lemon zest for serving, if desired

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350° F.

For the meatballs, place the ground pork, bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, tarragon, parmesan, milk, egg, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and combine gently with your clean hands – this is the best method! Taking a teaspoon of the mixture at a time, form 1 to 1-1/4 inch meatballs and drop onto a sheet pan that has been lined with parchment. You should have about 40 meatballs when you’ve finished. Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through. If you’d like, you can stop here and finish the soup within 3 days or go on to making it immediately.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large stock pot. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook until they’ve softened, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, add the chicken stock and wine, bringing the mixture to a boil. Add the pasta to the simmering broth and cook until the pasta is tender. Add the meatballs to the soup and stir in the spinach, allowing the soup to cook for another 2 minutes, or until the spinach is wilted. Check the taste for salt and pepper.

When soup is finished, ladle into bowls and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, some additional parmesan, and a light sprinkle of lemon zest. Serve with warm, crusty bread, if desired. As with all soups, this is great on day one and amazing a day or two later, reheated.