Saturday, January 17, 2009

Rich Easy Pasta Dish for Winter, with Ham, Tomato, and Cream

On this cold winter afternoon, looking out at the darkening sky, I'm inclined toward rich and comforting food. Here's a pasta dish that fits, plus has a delightful pink color. Potato cooked in with the pasta is a trick from Genoa, originally for dressing with pesto. Potato with pasta adds to the comfort of the dish.

The recipe serves six. It goes with a light-bodied red wine, like a Chianti, a Pinot Noir, or a French or Spanish wine of Grenache/Garnacha.

Pasta with Ham, Tomato, and Cream

1/2 pound penne rigati or other short pasta
1 large potato, peeled, in 1/2-inch cubes
3/8 pound (6 ounces) sliced smoked ham (get at deli counter)
1 15-ounce can diced tomato, drained (use juice for another dish)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 cup half and half cream
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
4 tablespoons grated romano or parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons finely minced parsley

Boil four quarts of water in large pot, add 1 teaspoon of salt. Peel and cube potato and soak in cold water. Prepare sauce ingredients before cooking pasta and potato.

Cut sliced ham into 1/2-inch squares, and set aside. Drain diced tomatoes. Place oil and garlic in microwaveable serving bowl, such as a pasta dish. Heat in microwave 30 seconds. Add ham, cream, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Microwave again, until well heated, 30 seconds at a time. Stir between heatings. Cream should boil lightly at the edge. (Alternatively, the sauce can be cooked quickly in a pan on the stove.)

Add potatoes to boiling water. When it returns to a boil, add pasta and stir well at first so it does not stick together. Boil, stirring occasionally, until pasta and potato are just tender when you bite them, 4 to 6 or more minutes, depending on the pasta. Drain in a colander and shake out water.

Add pasta to sauce. Add cheese and parsley, and toss all together. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary (usually not needed, but depends on salt in ham and cheese).

Serve immediately, dusted with a little more cheese. Accompany with more grated cheese.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Luscious Economical Mexican Casserole: Chicken Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles [chee la KEE lace] intrigued me as I read about them as a student preparing for an on-the-cheap summer working as a volunteer in Mexico. As luck would have it, I got a small scholarship to go to Colombia instead. Seven or eight years passed before I finally got to taste what remained in my memory. By then, I could afford a little more luxury in my diet on the road. But chilaquiles, a down-home dish made essentially of leftovers and not usually served in restaurants, and which I had to talk the cook at a small cantina into making for me, met my expectations. I'm describing it here because, in this imposed era of financial austerity, the dish, or at least a simplified version, makes a delicious meal at low cost.

This is a breakfast or lunch dish in Mexico, rather than dinner (though I find it delicious for dinner, if garnished up a bit). It is credited as a cure for hangovers. In the original version, stale corn tortillas are quartered and fried in oil -- lard in the old days -- then simmered or baked with left-over salsa of almost any kind (green is good), and bits of cooked meat or fish, if available, are added. Finally some cheese is melted on. Chilaquiles are typically served with refried beans, and for breakfast sometimes a fried egg. The tortillas take on a meaty quality.

As you'll see, I've taken some liberties for the sake of convenience and availability of ingredients. I've also reformatted the dish as a dinner casserole, which I think it warrants. American households are not likely to have stale corn tortillas lying around, plus the frying (yes, I've done it the "real" way) is incredibly tedious, and stale tortillas really soak up the grease. I use commercially available tortilla chips. Moreover we don't typically have a pot or molcajete of yesterday's homemade salsa lying around, either. So, using a food processor or blender, I make a fresh "salsa" to season everything with. Finally, this is the place for rotisserie chicken (which the Mexicans cook too). I make a broth from the skin and bones both for moistening the casserole and other uses, like soup or Mexican rice.

Uncharacteristically, I am not offering wine suggestions, since those would depend on whether this is a lunch or evening meal as well as on what is served with the dish. The Mexican beverage is typically beer, anyway. My favorite garnishes are fresh cilantro, quartered limes for squeezing on, and slightly diluted sour cream to serve as the Mexican "crema." The recipe serves six generously, with leftovers.

Chilaquiles Casserole with Chicken

1 roasted rotisserie chicken
1 small onion, peeled
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded
1 green bell pepper, seeded
1 large bunch cilantro
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes (unseasoned)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound bag corn tortilla chips (unflavored)
8 ounces Mexican melting cheese, Jack, or mild Cheddar, grated
Limes for garnish
1 cup sour cream plus 2 tablespoons milk or water, for accompaniment

Remove skin from chicken and put it in pot. Cut meat into long thin strips and set aside. Add bones, wing tips, etc., to the pot, along with 8 cups water, and simmer 30 minutes. Skim off grease. Strain broth through sieve.

In food processor, place the onion, cut in chunks, jalapeño, bell pepper, and stems of all the cilantro and 3/4 of the leaves (reserve remainder for garnish). Pulse, scrape down, and puree the mixture. Add tomatoes and juices plus salt, and pulse to chop tomato finely.

Place tortilla chips in 9 by 13-inch casserole dish. Sprinkle lightly with salt if chips are already salted, more heavily if chips are unsalted. Spread chicken evenly over chips, then 3/4 of the cheese. Mix gently with your fingers to distribute the ingredients.

Mix pureed ingredients with 2 cups strained broth (refrigerate or freeze remaining broth for other use). Spoon the mixture evenly over chips and chicken. With spoon, gently push contents of casserole around to mix slightly. Top with remaining cheese.

Set oven for 375 degrees. Let casserole sit to soak up juices while oven is heating.

Bake about 45 minutes, until cheese is well melted and the edges of the casserole bubble. During the last 10 minutes, place a sheet of waxed paper loosely over the casserole. Remove from oven, and keep waxed paper on casserole to keep it moist.

Serve accompanied with quartered limes for squeezing on, a bowl of sour cream thinned with the milk or water, and a dish with reserved cilantro sprigs.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Sautéed Butternut over Jalapeño-Wine-Cheese Grits

Here's a combination I developed for a demonstration of "local food" at the Athens Farmers Market in early September. It used primarily ingredients for sale at the Market that day, and donated by the various farmers. Now in the depths of winter, the produce will be coming in from California and Mexico, but the dish makes a hearty, yet economical, cold-weather dinner for the new year.

The grits, preferably stone-ground, are treated like polenta. The sauté, while with American ingredients, is suggestive of Italian cooking.

Prepare the grits first, and keep them warm while sautéing the butternut. The recipes serve six people. A medium-bodied dry red wine, such as a Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Spanish red would accompany this well.

Jalapeño-Wine-Cheese Grits
1 cup milk
3 cups water
1 cup stone-ground grits (Georgia, and yellow, preferred)
1/2 cup white wine
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon grated black pepper
2 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

In heavy pan, bring milk and water to boil, being careful not to boil over. Stirring constantly with wooden spoon or spatula, add grits in a small stream. Reduce heat to medium, and continue to stir frequently as grits begin to thicken, 4 to 5 minutes. Add wine, minced jalapeño, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to the lowest, cover pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, until grits are becoming tender, 20 minutes or more depending on the variety used. Stir in cheese. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary. Continue to simmer (or place pot in a larger pan with an inch of boiling water to serve as hot water bath as they simmer) until ready to serve, stirring from time to time. The longer the grits simmer the better. If the grits thicken too much, add a little water. Do a final taste and adjust salt, if necessary, before serving.

Sautéed Butternut
1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small-medium green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 very large clove garlic, minced
1 small jalapeño, seeded and minced
2 large tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped (or 1 cup drained canned diced tomatoes)
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup white wine
6 medium-large fresh basil leaves, cut in half
2 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
A little more grated cheese, or minced parsley, for serving

Peel butternut, and cut into 3/4-inch slices, scooping out the seed cavity. Cut flesh into 3/4-inch chunks. Fry (sauté) these gently in large pan with olive oil, stirring frequently. Meanwhile prep the other vegetables as indicated, keeping tomato separate.

When butternut is starting to become tender (test with a toothpick), add onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeño. Add salt and pepper, and sauté mixture, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pan, until bell pepper and onion become tender. Stir in chopped tomatoes and sauté about 2 minutes, stirring carefully several times. Add wine and sauté briefly until all vegetables are tender. The mixture should be slightly wet. If not, add a little water to moisten. Taste several bits of vegetable and stir in a little salt, if needed. Remove from heat, and stir in basil and grated cheese.

To Serve
Spread a portion of grits on a plate. Spoon some butternut mixture over it. Sprinkle with either a little grated cheese or minced parsley.