Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Come to Mama! I've still got it - cooking a fabulous sauce.

Maybe it was because I lay on the couch last week, sick with a cold, and watched some Julia Child episodes on a public TV fundraiser. Or maybe it was just my kitchen-womanly pride, but I wanted to cook this week. I mean really cook. So I did. Thursday evening my friend David was stopping by upon his return from a trip. I'd offered a homecoming dinner. I felt lousy at that point but figured I had to eat, too, so I made a risotto and wow did it taste good. Just a classic arborio rice, glazed in some hot oil and garlic, then a cup of white wine cooked into that, followed by the long simmering to absorb, cup by cup, about a quart of broth. The result? Hot, creamy, flavorful risotto. I made a side dish of acorn squash halves, baked with some butter melted in the cavities, and then filled those with peas which had simmered with finely chopped onion and dill. Talk about comfort food!

Then Sunday, while visiting with  my friend Denise, I roasted some parsnips, onions and pears (after tossing them in olive oil) and blended half of that with broth and half with cream and then simmered it all together while reducing a cup of balsamic vinegar to a thick drizzling garnish. WOW! What a success. Actually I worried that after coring the parsnips (which I've never done before and am not at all sure is necessary) that they were not enough, so we added some carrots to the roasting mix. This soup was a savory, delicious treat, far exceeding my expectations. I would not have known there were pears in it but I surely won't try making it without them. Something very right was going on in that roasting pan and soup pot. I've already bought more parsnips and pears to try it again without the carrots. I accompanied the soup with my favorite corn bread, which is made with sour cream and is corny enough while also being moist and tender. It worked but I think I'd prefer the soup paired with a yeast bread or chebe bread.

I guess I was feeling my oats at this point, because I invited another friend to dinner on Monday night. I had an unexpectedly busy day Monday so found I was very tired by mid afternoon. But as the dinner hour approached I decided I did not want to compromise the meal or choose some easy old standby to make. I'd been thinking all afternoon about what I'd like to have and at about 4:30 it came to me. Pasta with Vodka sauce. My friend Shari shared the recipe with me years ago and I could not find it to save my soul Monday night. So I made it from memory. First I sliced some tiny carrots julienne style and sliced up some baby zucchini, green pepper, then sauteed all that in some olive oil with herbs and crushed garlic until just tender. Then I turned off the heat and put a lid over the veggies to keep them warm. For the sauce, as Julia would say "first you make a roux:" 2tbsp. butter/melted then 2tbsp. flour stirred quickly in; then add a cup of cream, slowly whisked into the roux until smooth. Stir in, a bit at a time, a cup of white wine - I make this recipe with white wine because I prefer the flavor of wine to vodka. I used a full bodied chardonnay. [Now is a good time to start the pasta cooking.] When the wine you've added to the initial cream sauce has smoothed into a velvety texture, gradually add more cream until you have about 2 1/2 -3 cups of it. Then, stir in a couple of big handfuls of fresh, finely-grated Parmesan. Fresh Parmesan melts in nearly instantly. The "fresh" grated stuff we buy in the store takes too long and leaves the sauce vulnerable to separating. I hadn't made that pasta sauce in years. Sometimes Alfredo is disappointing to me - bland. But I love this.  I laid the pretty melange of veggies over the pasta which I'd tossed with about 2/3 of the sauce. (Next time I might saute mushrooms until brown and have just those with more pasta and the leftover sauce.)  I did scratch the idea of making hot chebe bread. I felt the pasta was enough starch for this meal. Such a rich entree, though, demands a salad. I had some good green leaf lettuce and added to that a cut up fresh pear, some toasted walnuts and a few shavings of Asiago cheese. I shook up a quick dressing of finely chopped leek with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The balsamic and leek made a great flavor contrast to the pear and Asiago.

Honestly, I surprised myself. Like a lot of single people living alone, I'm pretty out of practice at putting actual meals on the table. I take a lot of short cuts but try not to compromise myself nutritionally. It's just easy to bake a potato and steam some broccoli or make a quick omelet. But a meal like this one makes me wonder why this gluten free vegetarian ever goes out to a restaurant. Plus, I'd been feeling worn out and yet I did this. Not just any old meal, but this. Telling about it, I'm reminded of my Aunt Van, who was maybe my age now (nearly 62) when I saw her leaving my Mom and Dad's house one day by the back door in the kitchen. She paused at the round mirror over the radiator where my  mom kept a hairbrush and always checked her hair and make-up before going out. Aunt Van, a statuesque woman with dyed chestnut hair and I Love Lucy red lipstick, thrust out her chest like a pin-up and said aloud to the mirror: "Uh! Van, you still got it!" As I floated around the kitchen and felt myself near accomplishing my vision of a lovely meal, I felt a little like my spunky Aunt Van. Come to think of it, I don't think Auntie, fabulous as she was, would ever have pulled that off.

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