Family Cookbook, Lesson 2

It has been long enough since I last posted that I had to reset my password and re-sign into everything here!  Life, you know.  A few posts ago, I mentioned that my ex-husband needed to learn to cook so that he could survive on more than boxed mac and cheese and scrambled eggs.  He moved out of my house a few weeks ago and it’s time to post another instructive recipe to try, since he is settling into his own place.

Before he moved, I asked if he had any dinner requests one final time and this is the dish he named.  It’s a pasta dish with sausage, peppers and cheese.  I made it up, based on something I ate at a friend’s house once. We had planned to have fondue (the friends were fancy) but it went wrong- I think we may have started an actual kitchen fire!- and we had this dish instead.  It’s pretty easy to make and doesn’t need fancy ingredients and is relatively healthy, for a pasta dish. Plus, I love the ricotta salata cheese I use for it.

Pasta with Peppers, Onion and Sausage

Ingredients

1 box of ziti or rigatoni

1 to 3 bell peppers (I use one red, one orange, and one yellow but do to your taste)

1 sweet onion

3 to 6 sweet Italian sausage links (I almost always use chicken sausage but again, to your taste- it might also be good with a mix of sweet Italian sausage and spicy Italian sausage, your call)

1 to 2 Tablespoons of olive oil

Ricotta Salata cheese (how much depends on how much you like it.  I always use a healthy-sized wedge)

Grated Parmesan cheese for sprinkling over the top

*you will need a big pot to cook the pasta and a large-ish skillet to cook the veggies- it can all be mixed in at the end in either the pot or the skillet, whichever will hold all of it

Directions

This dish takes a bit of prep chopping work.  But don’t let that deter you- it’s actually not that time-consuming.

First, fill a pot with water (pasta cooks by absorbing the water so you want a lot), add a good amount of salt and set it to boil. Once it’s boiling, add your pasta and cook to your liking (8-10 minutes is the standard instruction on the box, some people like a little over or under that).

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Next, chop up your veggies.  I always start with the onion.  Peel it and cut off the ends (yes, I know this is not the “professional” way to do it but it works for me).  Slice it in half and then slice those halves into strips.  Heat the skillet over medium high heat and add the olive oil (enough to coat the pan but not enough to deep fry anything).  Add the sliced onion and let them cook while you chop the other vegetables, stirring occasionally.  Try to keep an eye and a nose on them as you want them to soften and brown a bit but not burn.  If they do start to burn, take the pan off the heat immediately and stir them to try to keep them moving.

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While the pasta is boiling and the onions are, well, onion-ing, get your peppers ready.  There are a million ways to chop up a bell pepper.  I slice off the top and pull out the seeds and membranes.  Then I cut it in half, cut it into strips, and cut the strips into chunks.

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Finally, cube your cheese.  I make slices and then cut them into relatively same-size cubes.  Ricotta Salata is a drier, firmer kind of cheese- a bit like feta- so it’s easier to cut up than softer cheeses.

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Are you checking your onions and your pasta?  If your pasta is done, drain it but be sure to reserve about 1/2 of a cup of the pasta water.

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Time to work on the sausage.  When shopping, if you can find sweet Italian sausage patties, not in casings, that makes this next step easier. My store doesn’t always have them so this is my trick for getting them out of the casing. There are two ways.  You can use a sharp knife to make a slit down the middle of the casing and then peel it off.

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Or (and this is my preferred method despite how gross/slightly phallic it looks) you can grab the sausage in the middle and squeeze out each end, like you might a tube of toothpaste.

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Once you have them emptied out (you can dispose of the casings in your compost or trash), add the sausage to the pan with the onions.  Break it up into chunks with the back of a spoon or spatula.  Let it brown up and cook down. If you’re using chicken sausage, you may need to add a splash more olive oil to the pan as the chicken has less fat than pork and may stick to the pan.

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Once the sausage is brown, add the peppers.

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Let them all cook together for about five to eight minutes over medium heat- you want the peppers to soften a bit but not get mushy.  Just before you take it off the heat, add the ricotta salata cheese and stir it around a bit, just enough to warm the cheese but not melt it.  Again, because of the hard, dry cheese aspect, ricotta salata won’t melt as quickly as other cheeses.  Or at all, really.

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Finally, you’re going to add this to your pasta or add your pasta to this- depends on which pan/pot is larger. Mix it around and if it seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved pasta water.  Start with about a 1/4 cup and stir.  If it still seems not well coated, add the rest.  Basically, you want the pasta to be coated with the yummy sausage/veggie flavor but this is not a dish that has a “true” sauce.

Sprinkle some Parmesan cheese over the top and boom, done.

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Family Cookbook, Lesson 1

In my last post, I mentioned that there had been some big life changes over the last year.  One of them, as I said, was a divorce.  Now, our family has long been known to “keep” people, regardless of relationship status.  A prime example?  My parents.  They met in college and dated until the end of their senior year.  My father lived near their college but over the years spent more and more time with my mother and her family at their house, which is the one my family lives in now.  After they graduated and ended their relationship, my mother moved a few blocks away from her parents, and my father…. moved in next door.  There was a rooming house next to my grandparents’ house and he took a room there.  Which meant every time my mother came home to do laundry, visit, or have a meal, my dad was there too, playing basketball with her brothers, helping my grandfather with work for the store or sitting at the table, talking with my grandmother.

“Family!”  she finally exclaimed, “I broke up with him!”

“We know, ”  they said, “But we didn’t!”

Clearly, they got back together because, well, here I am telling this story.  It doesn’t end there, however.  When I was 8 my parents separated and eventually divorced.  My dad remained in the area and stayed close to my grandmother.  At one point, he brought his soon-to-be second wife to meet her.  Grandma loved everyone and was gracious and accepting.  My father stayed close to both my grandparents until their deaths.  When family gets together now, even if he isn’t present (and he often is), they ask about him and reminisce about good times.

It’s not just my father, it’s all the ex-wives, ex-partners, friends, long-lost-relatives, roommates and others who remain in the family.  Everyone is always welcomed back.  For funerals, weddings, and other family holidays and events, we always have a large number of people who have to explain their connection (“Oh, I used to be married to…” and “…I lived at the house when I was…”). I’ve said it before somewhere but at one point we had a very large dinner (30 + people) and we asked everyone who’d ever lived at our house to raise their hands, and almost everyone there had a hand raised.

So it would make sense that the same is true for my divorce.  My ex-husband plans to live with us for one more year and then to continue to visit and spend time with all of us.  He’s using that year to save money, organize himself and to pick up some new skills that he’ll need to live alone.  One such skill is cooking.  I’ve promised him that I would teach him how to make a few dishes so that he won’t be stuck eating boxed macaroni and cheese or scrambled eggs for each meal.

As a result, I plan to post a few recipes here that he will be able to use.  A bit of an on-line cookbook, with step by step instructions for some basic, healthy, but still kind of impressive dishes.  We are starting with chicken because if you have a protein, you just need a vegetable and maybe a starch and you’ve got a full meal.  Plus, once you have cooked chicken, it can be used in almost anything- tacos, pasta, salads, sandwiches…. you name it.  It seems like the best place to begin.

Now, I have shamelessly stolen my chicken method from the wonderful, instructive, website The Kitchn.  They explain how to make a simple, but juicy chicken breast here.  I have followed the steps and taken photos and am going to explain it below but I need to make it clear, this isn’t my method or recipe.   That being said, it’s my go-to way to cook chicken.

Ingredients

Boneless, skinless chicken breast (1 per person or you can cut one in half if it’s large)

Flour (you’re going to coat the chicken in flour so maybe a cup or so, more if you’re making more chicken, less if not)

Salt, pepper, seasonings

1-2 Tablespoons of butter

1-2 Tablespoons of olive or canola oil

*You will also need a saute or frying pan with a tight-fitting lid.

 

Directions

Start by placing your flour into a plate- better to use a large plate with a bit of a lip or even a flat baking sheet with a lip.

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Add your seasonings (pre-mixed is ok! but it will salty so adjust accordingly.  You can always add more salt but taking out salt is much harder.).

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Use a small whisk or a fork to stir it together.

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Whisk or stir until it looks evenly incorporated.

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Now, at this point, you can pound your chicken breasts so that they are all of uniform size. To do that, use a meat mallet or a heavy jar or can and pound evenly  all around.  That being said, I don’t always do that, because I’m lazy (as is well established) and this method still works.

Put a frying or saute pan large enough to hold your chicken pieces without crowding them on the stove and turn the heat to medium to preheat the pan.  Keep your eye on this!  You don’t want to burn the pan.  And if you’re nervous about this, because multitasking is tough, don’t do it.  The chicken can always sit for a minute while you heat the pan.

If your chicken is extra wet, pat it dry with a paper towel.  Again, lazy, so I don’t always do that step either.  Then place it in the flour on one side.

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Take it out and gently shake off any excess.

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Do the same to the other side.

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Again, shake off any excess. You should have a light coating of the seasoned flour all over. Set the chicken aside on a clean plate.

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Put a pat of butter and some oil (about a tablespoon  or two of each) into the preheated pan or, if you didn’t preheat, do it now, over medium high heat for about a minute or two, and then add the butter and oil.

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On my stove that looks like this:

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Once it has melted but not browned (like this:)

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Add your chicken, carefully because it may spatter and you don’t want to get burned.

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Now, here’s the hard part:  turn the heat to medium and leave the chicken alone for a full minute.  Don’t touch it at all.  At all. Trust.  This will work.

After a minute, flip the chicken over.

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Now comes the big leap of faith. Cover the pan.

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Turn the heat to low and don’t touch it.  Leave it alone.  Don’t peek, don’t mess with it, don’t flip it, don’t change the heat, don’t take the lid off, just LEAVE. IT. ALONE.  For ten minutes.  Then, turn the heat off (yes, off) BUT DON’T TOUCH THE PAN OR LID for another ten minutes.  Let the chicken sit, with the lid on for these ten minutes (it will be twenty minutes in total: ten with heat, ten without).  After that, open the lid and gaze lovingly at the beautiful end result that YOU created. I tend to put mine onto a cutting board- letting it sit for 2-5 minutes- and then I slice it so that I can use it for any number of things (salads, chicken salad, pasta dishes) or I just eat it plan with some veggies on the side.  Works every single time.

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