Dinner for Two: Buttery-Garlicky-Spicy Calamari with Israeli CousCous

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I must credit two people for introducing me to what has become my favorite special-occasion-feeling fast-food meal. The first is Melissa Clark, who wrote the recipe for the dish you see above, and the second is my dear friend, Tracie, who gifted me Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now, the book that contains said recipe.

I adore Melissa Clark because she takes dishes that seem complicated and makes them super simple and un-intimidating (like this one). And then once you make the dish, stand back and admire your work, you feel like a superhero / star chef. I love that feeling.

I grew up eating a lot of calamari, usually fried. It was a staple of our Christmas Eve menu as well as our Good Friday one. Good ol’ Italian Catholics and their affinity for seafood. My mother makes the lightest fried calamari you’ve ever tasted. It’s never greasy or rubbery or heavy or fishy, probably because my mom knows how to buy seafood, and she knows how to fry. I’ve become comfortable cooking fish fillets in the last six months, and while I can do a lot with shrimp and I’ve finally figured out how to sear scallops (hot pan! hot pan!), I have stayed away from squid. A—I don’t fry food, and B—I had distinct memories or seeing it inky, sandy and slippery on the kitchen counter from my childhood. Gross.

Ms. Clark introduced me to buying cleaned squid and sauteing it in butter and olive oil. Life-changing, let me tell you! Cleaned squid, tentacles and all, takes minutes to prepare. You cut the bodies into half-inch rings and leave them on paper towels to dry, then pat dry again. Leave the tentacles whole, unless they’re huge, in which case you just split them in half with your knife. It’s totally not gross. Also, something my mother taught me—fresh seafood doesn’t smell fishy. It smells like the sea. So if you get home and unwrap your squid and it stinks, wrap it back up and take it back to your fish dealer. Get a refund, and don’t buy from them again.

Israeli couscous is a great partner for the squid here – it’s light and creamy yet still has some bite, it absorbs the sauce well, and if you get the tri-color kind like I did, it certainly looks pretty. I found some beautiful snap peas at the market, so I served them steamed with the squid & couscous. You could substitute broccoli or baby spinach as well.

One word of note: This dish takes ten minutes to prepare, but to achieve greatness in those 10 minutes, have all your ingredients ready and the table set. You and your sweetie will be treated to an amazing meal, I promise.

RECIPE:

Buttery-Garlicky-Spicy Calamari with Israeli CousCous

adapted from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark

  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cooking time: 10 minutes
  • Serves: 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2/3 cup Israeli (pearl) couscous
  • 2 tsbp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 pound fresh raw squid, bodies cut into 1/2 rings, plus the tentacles, patted dry
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 basil leaves, cut into ribbons
  • handful of parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • quarter of a lemon (to squeeze)

Method:

  • Add broth & pinch of salt to a 1.5 or 2 quart saucepan, then bring to a boil. Add the couscous, return to a boil, then cover and turn the heat to its lowest setting. Set your timer for 10 minutes.
  • This would be a good time to prep a vegetable for steaming in the microwave. Or, you could whip a green salad together. Just sayin’.
  • When the couscous has 5 minutes to go, heat a large skillet (not non-stick) over high heat. After a couple a minutes, add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter is melted and the foam subsides, add the squid and stand back (there may be some sputters and pops – careful!). Be patient and don’t poke the squid for a solid minute.
  • Add the garlic, basil, parsley and pepper flakes and stir everything together. You’ll see some sear marks on the squid (this is good), and you want to cook it till its just opaque throughout, which is really easy to see. Sprinkle salt and pepper on top and remove from heat.
  • Stir in the couscous till its coated with the sauce, then squeeze the lemon over the mixture (watch out for pits!) and stir again. Serve immediately with a nutritious green vegetable and a glass of something light and crisp, like a Grüner Vetliner.

Pasta with Pan-Seared Asparagus & Pancetta

I usually do a lot of cooking on Sunday—I’ll make a big midday meal for my boyfriend and I, and sometimes our friends, and usually I’ll do what my mother calls “cooking for the week”.  Sometimes I’ll prepare a big pot of soup, roast some vegetables, make a big pot of rice or farro.  I portion everything out into plastic containers, and then I’m good to go—until Thursday night, when I’ve either run out of cooked food, or I’ve grown tired of leftovers.

Last night, a quick glance of my unusually empty refrigerator gave me two ingredients: asparagus and zucchini. I couldn’t really make a meal of just those, so I went to the pantry. Behold! Pasta. On the counter, garlic. In the spice cabinet: red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt. Then I went back to the fridge, directly to the cheese drawer for some parmesan, and lo—I found an unopened package of chopped pancetta. I grabbed the asparagus and left the zucchini behind for another meal.

There’s really no trick to this dinner—while the water boils, clean the asparagus and snap off the tough ends. Grate some cheese, chop some garlic. Once the pasta starts cooking, you can prepare the asparagus any way you like—steamed, sauteed, grilled or roasted. I’ve taken to pan-searing asparagus in my cast iron skillet. The method is simple, quick, and leaves the asparagus bright green and crisp-tender, with just a bit of char. I sear the asparagus spears whole, then chop into pieces.

In another pan I cooked the pancetta (about 3 tablespoons) with the garlic and olive oil, adding just a splash of red wine to de-glaze the pan. Once the pasta was done cooking, I drained it and threw it in with the pancetta, added the asparagus, a bit more oil and then the cheese. A couple stirs, and I was done. Dinner for the evening, and enough to enjoy for lunch the next day.

An Elegant Dinner for One: Zucchini Ribbons with Shrimp

Tired after a long day?

Hungry, too?

If you have 5 shrimp & a zucchini, you have dinner.

This is the kind of experiment that makes me really glad I opted for a home cooked meal tonight instead of take out Thai.  If you’re in the mood for pasta but don’t necessarily have the patience to boil water and cook it, get a zucchini and a vegetable peeler. Peel the zucchini into ribbons and set it aside.

Put the shrimp in a bowl with just a few drops of oil and toss them with your favorite seasoning. Tonight I used Old Bay, because that’s what was within arm’s reach. Set a 8″ or 9″ skillet over medium-high heat, then add a pat of butter (let’s say a teaspoon). As the butter melts, add about the same amount of oil and swirl around the pan to coat.  Then add your shrimp.

While the shrimp cook—about 3 minutes on each side—chop a clove or two of garlic (I mean, it’s garlic. Garlic is to shrimp what jelly is to peanut butter. You want more than one clove? Have more.)  Remove the shrimp from the pan, and add the zucchini ribbons, garlic, a pinch of salt, and a generous pinch of ground black pepper. Hear the sizzle, smell the butter. Sauté the zucchini until the ribbons start to get soft and flexible. Toss the shrimp back in to the pan, stir, and then add a splash of wine, stock, beer, or whatever you have around.  For heat, add some crushed red pepper. For a little punch, add some grated cheese (I had some asiago on hand).

In less than 15 minutes, you have prepared an elegant and healthy dinner. And look how pretty it is!

Congratulate yourself on making it through another week, take a sip of wine and eat up. You deserve it.

Sunday Cooking Wrap-Up: When One Ingredient Makes All The Difference

My day began with a minor disaster—and a lesson: don’t attempt to separate eggs without being properly caffeinated first.  After 5 wasted eggs and 2 cups of coffee, I successfully separated nine eggs and made an angel food cake for my father.

While the cake was in the oven, I prepared a savory experiment for my boyfriend—an ultimately successful adaptation of David Tanis’s Orecchiette al Forno (you can find the recipe here).  My adaptation may qualify as a new dish entirely—I didn’t use orecchiette, and I didn’t bake the dish, so we can cross out the “al forno”. This is how it turned out:

Conchiglie Rigate with Broccoli Rabe, Sausage & Ricotta

Instead of orecchiette, I used conchiglie rigate (ridged shells), a sturdy pasta that holds up to reheating and even better—has the perfect concave shape to trap bits of sausage and sauce, so the all the flavors really get into the pasta.  Before preparing a container of this lovely dish for a surprise delivery, I stole a few bites. (Okay, more than a few.) I think my boyfriend will be happy.

So after making a cake for dad and pasta for my boyfriend, it was time to make something for myself.  On chilly & rainy days like today, the only thing I want is soup.

I cooked some beans, gathered and chopped my veggies, and defrosted my chicken stock—all the makings of a hearty soup. But I wanted a little something extra. Not heat or spice or meat, but a something fresh with a nice pop.

Enter pesto. A little bit of pesto sauce does what dried herbs cannot do—add the sweet zing of fresh basil, garlic & extra virgin olive oil in one concentrated shot.  Plus, it turns average soup into something fancy-sounding: Soup al Pistou. Oui!

Vegetable Soup al Pistou

Adapted from WeightWatchers.com

Time: 45 minutes

Serves: 4 (about 1.5 cups soup/serving)

Ingredients:

  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. salt, divided
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1.5 cups cooked cannellini beans, with a 1/2 cup cooking liquid (or just used canned)
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen green peas
  • 1 medium zucchini, chopped
  • 3/4 cup diced tomatoes (with their liquid)
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 4 heaping teaspoons pesto sauce
  • grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (for topping)

Method:

Heat a large pot over medium high heat. Add oil, swirl to coat. Next, add carrots, celery, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.

Add chicken stock, raise the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Stir in beans, peas, zucchini, and tomato. Allow mixture to cook at a rapid simmer (you don’t want a rolling boil) for another 10 minutes. Add spinach, stirring into the soup until it’s wilted. Remove the pot from the heat, add the other teaspoon of salt and freshly ground pepper to your taste.

Divide soup into 4 bowls. Spoon a heaping teaspoon of pesto on top of each bowl, following with the grated cheese.  Have a seat, a sip of wine, and stir up your soup. Enjoy with a piece of warm, crusty bread. Voi-la!

 

Note – If you’re dining alone like me, and want to save the rest of the soup for lunch and dinner during the week, refrigerate the soup (without the pesto or cheese) within two hours of cooking. It’ll keep for 4-5 days. Add the pesto and grated cheese when you reheat the soup.

Weight Watchers Points Plus Value

  • 5 per serving

Sweet Tooth: Two Desserts Made With Fresh Ricotta (Caution: Wine and Salted Caramel are involved…)

When last we met yesterday, I was telling you about my experiment making fresh ricotta cheese.  There are lots of desserts made with ricotta—cheesecakes, pies, cakes, cannoli cream, pudding—and when they’re done right, all of those desserts are wonderful. Creamy and dreamy.

But those desserts can take a lot of time to prepare. If you have fresh ricotta on hand and want to satisfy your sweet tooth—okay, need to satisfy it—I’ve got two desserts that do the job. Each recipe takes 30 minutes or less to prepare, and showcases the soft & creamy texture of ricotta alongside simply cooked and incredibly flavorful fruit.

Exhibit A: Broiled Pineapple with Salted Caramel, Fresh Ricotta, and Chopped Pecans

Serves: 4

Time: 25 minutes

Hi there.

What you will need:

  • 1 golden ripe pineapple
  • 2 tbsp. dark rum (I am a fan of Black Seal)
  • 2 tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. unsalted butter
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans (or walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts)
  • Access to a broiler (and if you don’t have that, a stove-top grill pan will work just fine)

How To Make It:

Set your broiler to high and let it pre-heat for ten minutes.  Peel and core the pineapple, and cut it into 8 stalks. Line up the pineapple stalks down the center of a foil-lined cookie sheet.

Place the pineapple about 2 inches from the broiler flame. Grab a small sauce pan and add the brown sugar, rum, and butter. Set the pan over medium-low heat and stir with a whisk to break up the sugar. Continue stirring until all the sugar dissolves, then add the salt. Allow mixture to boil for 1-2 minutes, then remove from heat.

Check on the pineapple. Ideally, you’ll want a little char on the edges of the stalks, but be careful not to burn them. Remove from the broiler once the stalks are ready. Drizzle half of the caramel sauce on each of four plates and place two stalks on each plate. Place about a 1/4 cup of ricotta on top of each pair of stalks, then drizzle the remaining caramel over the cheese. Top each dessert with about a tablespoon of chopped pecans and serve.

Voi-la!

Exhibit B: Red Wine-Poached Pears with Fresh Ricotta and Chopped Walnuts

Serves: 4

Time: 30 minutes

Hello, gorgeous.

What you’ll need:

  • 4 pears (I used D’Anjou, but Bartlett or Bosc pears work just as well)
  • 1.5 cups red wine
  • 1.75 cups water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts (pecans or almonds work here too)

How to Make It:

Combine wine, water, cinnamon stick and lemon in a medium saucepan and set over medium high heat. While you’re waiting for the mixture to boil, peel the pears.

Add the pears to the boiling liquid and reduce to a simmer.  The pears should be completely submerged in the liquid. Poach pears for 8-10 minutes, until they’re tender enough to pierce with a knife. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pears to a plate to cool. Continue simmer the poaching liquid, allowing it to reduce by about a quarter.

Remove the pan from heat, and use the same slotted spoon to lift out 4 of the lemon slices, placing each on a dessert plate. The lemon slice will anchor the pear so it doesn’t roll around. Next, spoon some of the reduced poaching liquid over each pear, letting it pool on the plate.

Set about 1/4 cup of ricotta on each plate, right in the pool of liquid, and sprinkle the top of each dish with the chopped nuts.

Boom! Done.

Happy eating!

How To Make Fresh Ricotta At Home (It’s Easier Than You Think!)

The finished product

Earlier this week, as I was looking through my well-worn copy of How To Cook Everything for dinner ideas, I stumbled upon a recipe for fresh cheese. After making pasta with fresh herbs and ricotta that I had purchased here last week and then using the cheese in a few other experiments, I knew I had to give this recipe a try—not only because it looked easy and relatively quick, but also because it would give me the opportunity to tell people, “I made cheese. At home. Easy-peasy,” and wow them with my culinary talents.

Certain dishes can give an ordinarily humble cook bragging rights, and cheese is one of them. I’m happy to report that anyone can earn such bragging rights—all you need is eight bucks, a big pot, some cheese cloth and a colander. That, and 45 minutes of free time. Bam! Fresh cheese.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting two very simple, elegant and surprisingly light desserts to make with fresh ricotta. Both are tested and successful crowd pleasers.

RECIPE:

Ricotta Cheese

Adapted from How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman

Time:

  • 45 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 gallon 2% milk (preferably organic, the best quality you can find)
  • 1 pint (2 cups) low-fat buttermilk
  • salt

Tools:

  • large pot
  • colander
  • large bowl
  • cheesecloth (you’ll need a bit less than 2 yards)

Method:

Set the colander over a large bowl.  Line the colander with 3 layers of cheesecloth. (I used binder clips to fasten the cheese cloth to the sides of the colander for stability.)

Put the milk in the pot and set over medium high heat, and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the milk from scorching.  Continue cooking until the milk starts to bubble up the sides of the pot. With the heat still on, add all of the buttermilk to the pot and stir constantly.

Within a minute or two, you’ll start to see curds form—they look like cooked egg white suspended in a yellowish-white liquid. That liquid is the whey.  Remove the pot from heat, add the salt and stir.

Carefully pour the mixture into the cloth-lined colander.  Gently lift the colander out and set over the pot. Discard the whey.

Allow the remaining whey in the colander to drain off for about 10 minutes or so. (Bittman recommends 30-60 minutes depending on your desired consistency, but I found after 15 minutes my ricotta looked a little dry, so I transferred it immediately to a glass container.) Allow the cheese to cool before refrigerating.

Yield:

  • 2 cups cheese

Storing:

  • Keep the cheese in a sealed glass or plastic container in the fridge for up to 4 days—if it lasts that long.

Weight Watchers Points Plus Information:

  • 2 cups of ricotta will yield 8 1/4-cup servings of cheese. Each serving is 4 Points Plus.

Notes: As first-time experiments go, this one was pretty successful, but I found that my cheese had not reached the perfectly creamy texture of the ricotta I picked up at Fairway last week. For one thing, I think I may have waited a minute or two too long to drain it, so I’d advise adding the salt the second you see the curds form, stir, then drain.  Keep an eye on the cheese as it drains in the colander, and press it with your finger or a spoon to test its consistency. It’s better to leave more moisture in than less, because the cheese continues to absorb any liquid as it cools. It will loosen up with added water.

Feel free to use whole milk, low-fat or skim milk in this recipe – Bittman asserts that any cow’s milk will work here, but the consistency and richness varies depending on the milk you use.

Sweet Tooth: Pumpkin Pie Pudding (Yes, in February. Just because.)

Hi. I am delicious. What's your name?

Pumpkin may be in season in the fall, but any time I’ve cooked with pumpkin I used the canned stuff.  This is unusual for me—given the option I almost always go with fresh ingredients.  But cutting, peeling and cooking a fresh pumpkin is a job—and when you’re pressed for time, as most of us are, going with the canned stuff is a great option. You end up with better consistency, and so long as you’re using a canned pumpkin without any additives, it’s easy to feel like you’re eating it fresh.

Another excellent benefit of canned pumpkin? It’s available year round. And with the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been enjoying (and been baffled by), it seemed entirely appropriate to make Pumpkin Pie Pudding for dessert on Saturday.  I was hosting a dinner party and serving an accidentally autumnal menu: pomegranate pork tenderloin, roasted sweet potatoes & apple, and sautéed Tuscan kale.  When I considered dessert options, I remembered a favorite I had originally found in Cooking Light a couple years ago.

The recipe yields 4 perfectly creamy (yet cream-free) puddings that have all the flavor of  pumpkin pie filling but ultimately a much lighter texture.  I like to add a little crunch (and admittedly I missed the pie crust), so I topped each pudding with crumbled gingersnaps.  Spoon on a dollop of whipped cream—flavored with nothing more than a touch of vanilla—and you’ve got an aromatic and fancy-looking dessert.  It’s also ridiculously simple and surprisingly low in fat.

Needless to say, my dinner guests (the boyfriend, my friend Bujan and his fiancé Anne) weren’t really concerned with any of that stuff.  They were too busy eating and smiling.

RECIPE

Pumpkin Pie Pudding

Adapted from Cooking Light (October 2010)

Yummy!

Time:

  • 15 minutes active time / 2-3 hours inactive time

Ingredients:

  • 6 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 3/4 cup Skim Plus milk (or 1% milk, but do not use regular skim milk)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin (unsweetened, 100% pure)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or use 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, plus a dash each of ground allspice, clove, nutmeg and ginger)
  • 1/8 tsp salt

For topping:

  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup gingersnaps, smashed and crumbled

Method:

  1. Combine 6 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons cornstarch in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Combine milk and egg, stirring well with a whisk. Gradually add milk mixture to sugar mixture, stirring constantly, and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
  2. Combine pumpkin, vanilla, spice and salt in a bowl, stirring well. Slowly add pumpkin mixture to milk mixture, whisking constantly. Place pan over low heat, and cook for 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated, stirring constantly (do not boil). Divide pudding evenly among 4 dessert bowls and cover surface of pudding with plastic wrap. (Tip: poke holes in wrap before covering surface to let hot air escape). Chill for at least 2 hours.
  3. Place gingersnap cookies in a zip-top bag, seal, and then smash the cookies into coarse crumbs using a mug or some heavy object you have laying around.  Best to place the bag on a dish towel so you don’t ruin your counter top when smashing.  This is the most fun part of this recipe.
  4. Just before you are ready to serve, place the cream in a glass or stainless steel bowl and beat on high with a mixer until soft peaks form. Add vanilla and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Top each serving with a sprinkle of cookie crumbs, followed by a dollop of whipped cream, and then a second sprinkling of crumbs.  Ta-daa: dessert.

Weight Watchers Points Plus Information:

  • Minus the gingersnap crumbs and whipped cream, each serving has a Points Plus value of 4