Food for thought: Meals for others

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking for others and the meaning behind the action. I don’t mean carving up a roast chicken for dinner guests around your table (although that also has its qualities), but meals that are made with care and delivered to someone in need.

It could be someone…

~ in bereavement
~ going through a divorce
~ caring for a new baby
~ moving house
~ fighting in court
~ ill or caring for the ill
~ on bed rest
~ out of work
~ overworked
~ writing exams
~ getting married
~ caring for a special needs family member
~ fighting a long term illness
~ in financial crisis

Think about it. Do you know anyone who is struggling with one of these life situations right now? I know I do. In fact, there are dishes rattling around in my trunk frequently because I’m often making a drop-off.

They say actions speak louder than words.

Two weeks after Mateo was born, I was hit with a nasty post-op infection and ordered to be on bed-rest. Yeah right. I had a two and a half-year-old and a newborn to care for.

Dear friends and neighbors came by with boxes of food, kind wishes and prayers; that sustained us during a particularly rough patch. The fact that they eliminated the need to cook allowed to me spend more time obeying the doctors orders.

Here’s what I wrote about receiving an apple cake :

“After the hospital food (which I barely survived), the cake tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten. I’ll never forget standing in my kitchen with Danny, eating it straight from the pan. It was as though we knew everything was going to be okay now. We have this cake.”

We could have brought home newborn triplets, and I would have felt fully equipped.”

There’s a lot to be said for the benefits of good, home cooked food when you are emotionally and physically low on reserves.

Have you ever received a meal during a difficult time from a well-meaning friend? How did it make you feel?

Have you ever brought a meal to someone in need? Cookies? How was it received?

I’m curious to know if this happens regularly. Please chime in and leave your thoughts.

WFD? Lemon, Chicken & Leek Pot Pies

What’s For Dinner? Individual Chicken Leek Pot Pies with Lemon and Tarragon.

It’s feels natural to jump on the comfort food bandwagon in January. Enough with the holiday finger food, the bowls of nuts, and elaborate dinner parties; what we need now is a one-pot meal to sink our fork into and forget about how dang cold it is outside. I think you’ll find this updated pot pie pretty satisfying.

Although I’ve been making variations on this dish for my family for a while, I might never have posted the recipe if it wasn’t requested by an old friend of mine. OK, maybe ‘request’ isn’t the right word, it was more like an order. In fact I believe her exact comment in response to this post was:

“I want your chicken leek pot pie recipe. I don’t like baking, but I like cooking so lets get on with the real food!”

Yes madam! Well, she did used to boss me around something fierce back in the day, so it comes naturally to her. I guess some things never change, eh?
So here you go, Kelly, I’ve done my part. You better make these now to feed all those bambinos of yours. Trust me, they will thank you for it.

I usually make these in massive batches as they freeze and re-heat wonderfully.
(edit 1) Since we sometimes need ‘heat & serve’ instant meals (little children’s tummies don’t understand waiting), I bake these as I normally would for a dinner, then cool them down, wrap them well and freeze for a later date. I re-heat them in the oven to keep the pastry crisp.
(edit 2) I find blanching my garlic alleviates some of the not so fun side effects while maintaining the full flavor that we love around here. However, this is not scientifically proven, just an opinion. I don’t do it often, perhaps just when I want to serve the dish to 10-month-old Mateo.

Chicken, Leek and Lemon Pot Pies

About 4 cups cooked, shredded chicken (I prefer dark meat and usually use thighs)
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and de-germed

3 leeks

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup flour

2 cups chicken stock

1/4 cup white wine (Optional)

1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon or 1 tsp dry
(thyme is good, too)
1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp grated lemon rind

1/4 cup whipping cream

Salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup green peas, defrosted if frozen

1 recipe pie crust or 450g puff pastry
(my lazy way out, although in the photos I used my usual pie dough.)
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
Place garlic in cold water, bring to boil, and boil for a minute or so. Drain and roughly chop. Reserve.

Cut very dark green leaves from leeks and discard. Wash leeks well and slice into 1/2-inch (1-cm) sections (I use about 2/3 of the leek)

Heat butter in skillet on medium heat. Add leeks and garlic and sauté for about 3 minutes or until leeks soften. Stir in flour and cook until pale gold, about 4 minutes, adding more butter if needed. Stir in chicken stock, white wine if using, tarragon, lemon juice and rind. Bring to boil. Add cream, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes or until thick and glossy. Season well with salt and pepper.

Stir in green peas and chicken. Place in a 6-cup baking dish or individual baking dishes. Roll out pastry 1/4-inch (5-mm) thick to cover top of dish. Cut a steam hole, decorate with any extra pastry cut in shapes, if desired. Brush with egg.

Bake pies on middle shelf of oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until pastry is golden and mixture bubbles.
I usually set my baking dish or dishes on a cookie sheet as I inevitably get one that overflows.

WFD? Linguine with Turkey, Thyme and Petits Pois

Life is different with this much jam.

I’m not used to making these kinds of big decisions so early in my day, and I find myself standing with the fridge door open for long periods of time contemplating what kind to have on my bagel. The bagel/toast/whatever, by the way, is by far secondary to the jam, and acts merely as a platform to get the jam into my tummy. Mmm, jam. Which one to open next?

Happy Thanksgiving to our neighbors to the south! I’m sure you all wined and dined on turkey and the trimmings and whether you know it or not, you will all drive me crazy with your various posts over the next few days featuring your tantalizing menus from the holiday. Not to worry, I’m already in Christmas mode and my home smells like gingerbread.

In case you find yourself standing with your fridge door open wondering what to do with all your turkey leftovers, here’s a simple, but tasty pasta dish. It freezes very well, allowing you to spread the turkey love over a few weeks if you don’t feel like dining on fowl yet another night in a row.

Of course, this is just an alternate version of Turkey Tetrazzini, but I dislike that name, having had one too many gray, nasty pasta dishes by that label.
Did I mention that this dish freezes great? I make this recipe and freeze half for another night. Isn’t it nice to have a casserole or two in the freezer when you are out Christmas shopping all afternoon and don’t have time to cook? Oh, and the kids eat this one too. Bonus.
That’s all for now. I’ve got to get cracking on some canapes for a party tomorrow and there’s gingerbread to decorate for my cookie swap on Sunday. I better brew an espresso, it’s going to be a long night!

Note: I’ve made this without the wine and it’s still great.

Linguine with Turkey, Thyme and Petit Pois
(adapted from Chicken Tetrazzini)
Serves 8

Coarse salt and ground pepper
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves OR 1/2 tsp dried
1 pound linguine, broken in half
4 cups cooked turkey, skin removed, meat shredded
1 cup fresh peas or grated zucchini.

1. Preheat oven to 400. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (for pasta). In a large saucepan melt tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add flour; cook, whisking, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, gradually add milk, broth, and wine. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, and add 1 1/2 cups Parmesan and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Cook pasta 2 minutes less than package instructions for al dente; drain and return to pot. Add sauce, turkey, and peas. Toss well to combine. Divide between two shallow 2-quart baking dishes; sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Freeze (see below) or bake until browned, about 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

To freeze: After placing pasta mixture in baking dishes and sprinkling with Parmesan (step 3), cool to room temperature. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, and freeze up to 3 months.
To bake from frozen: Bake, covered with foil, at 400 degrees, until center is warm, about 2 hours. Uncover, and bake until top is browned, about 20 minutes more. Serve.
To bake from thawed: Thaw overnight in refrigerator. Bake, covered with foil, at 400 degrees, until center is warm, about 30 minutes. Uncover, and bake until top is browned, about 20 minutes.

Mama’s Meatballs and One Night with Rocco

Most people know Rocco DiSpirito as the cute but slightly self-centered chef from the 2005 reality show “The Restaurant”, or maybe you read about him in a cooking magazine or saw his pretty face on a talk show (he’s also recently popped up as a guest judge on Top Chef).
Part chef, part business man, he certainly has made a name for himself, but his character has earned quite a reputation as well; unfortunately, it’ s not as pretty as his face.
I experienced this first hand back in 2002 when I had had the ‘pleasure’ of working with Rocco. This was long before his reality show aired, when he was executive chef at New York City’s Union Pacific. I was working as a line cook at one of Montreal’s top restaurants and we hosted Rocco as a guest celebrity chef for two nights. The place was packed out as Montreal gourmets came to sample a 7-course tasting menu featuring Rocco’s Union Pacific food and to meet the young star. I’m sure he was smooth as butter in the dining room, but my kitchen experience was rather different.
Rocco’s presence in the kitchen was wildly irregular. Half of the time he chatted and laughed into his cell phone, barely glancing at plates as they went out, and the rest of the time he played the roll of a typical tyrannical Head Chef, snapping at people and letting us know he was far, far superior.
I kept my head down and worked my butt off, but it was hard not to smile to myself at his silly get-up: carefully tousled hair, snug designer jeans, pinstriped button down shirt and a chef’s jacket that looked more like an after thought. I guess it was fitting, as the only work he did all night was shave a few black truffles onto his osso bucco. I was plating two of his starters that night: Maine scallops in tomato water and some sort of nasty lobster in a Reisling jelly. He had a few choice words for my plating style, sneering at me with such mockery it took my breath away. His sarcasm was sharp and his arrogance unmistakable. Classy.
After the service was over, my ever-hospitable and gracious boss brought a few bottles of Dom Perignon into the kitchen and Rocco stole the show by dramatically slicing the tops off the bottles with a cleaver and flamboyantly filling the glasses as if he was hosting his own party. He was all smiles now, running his fingers through his hair and flirting with the girls. A few of the staff were having him sign that evenings’ menu as a keepsake, but a few of us hung back, not wishing to stroke his massive ego further and really not caring if we got his autograph or not. Eventually he approached us. He lifted himself up onto my work station, and to my chagrin, stretched out full length on the stainless steel. He propped his head up on his hand, crossed his legs and said sweetly,
“Don’t you want my autograph, too?” Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Google “Rocco’s meatballs” and you will get a whopping 32, 700 hits . He’s taken his mama’s recipe and turned it into an empire. People raved over them on his reality show and now Dull Normals like us can order them online for only $39, or make them ourselves as the ‘top secret’ recipe is out! I am not really a spaghetti and meatballs kind of girl, but my little Noah was sick with a cold this week and I wanted to make him some home style comfort food. They didn’t end up under the high chair, he tucked right into a bowl, so I guess if it’s good enough for New York’s elite, it’s good enough for him!
We enjoyed them too; I’ll be making them again.
Thanks Mama Dispirito!

Mama’s Meatballs 1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 yellow onion
1 clove garlic
¼ cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground veal
1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
3-6 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil 1. Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender of food processor and puree.

2. In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.

3. Put a little olive oil on your hands and form mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about ¼ cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.

4. Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch-wide sauté pan and heat over medium-high flame. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

5. While the meatballs are browning, heat the marinara sauce in a stockpot over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the marinara sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for one hour.

6. Serve with a little extra Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Serve alone or over spaghetti (in which case, you will need 6 cups of marinara). Serves 6.

Chili’s Right for those Chilly Nights

I think I’m nesting.

No, not in a pull-fur-from-my-underbelly-and-make-a-nest kind of way, but more a hormonal-pregnant-woman’s-natural-nesting-instinct kind of way. I am usually a pretty organized girl, but when my sock drawer is tidy, my family photo albums up to date, my son’s toys categorically assigned to labeled bins and I’ve moved on to the ironing pile (my least favorite household task), warning lights start going off in my head. So far I haven’t done anything too outrageous and everything still seems justifiable, such as starting to stockpile frozen meals for when the baby comes. Totally practical, right?

This chili was one if the first dishes to be made in mass quantities and tucked away in liter containers. Now chili is not something I grew up with; beans, yes, in vast amounts, but chili would have required using ground beef and my mother usually kept us pretty far away from the stuff.

“Chock full of hormones” she would say.

It took a while before I could bring myself to buy ground beef, let along make a manly pot of chili for my man, but over the years it has slowly become something we enjoy once in a while during the cold winter months.

Funnily enough, Noah loves chili and that is reason enough to stockpile. Another reason is the massive bag of dried kidney beans that I have been working my way through for the past two years. I always get waaaaay to carried away in those bulk food stores. Oh, how I love them, with their eight different kinds of dried oats, pretty displays of colorful lentils, and vast assortments of dried fruit, but I inevitably end up leaving with far more than I need or could possibly use for a household of three. Hence the kidney beans.

You will find this chili convenient for making in large amounts and conducive to freezing, but there’s nothing pretty about it. It was rather hard to get inspired to photograph it–I mean, it’s chili. It just ain’t pretty!

Winter Chili.

This is a spicier version of what I usually make. Not so suitable for young children, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. If you want a milder version, just omit the can of chillies, the cayenne and reduce the chili powder by half, as I do.

1 ½ lbs ground beef

1 lb Italian sausages, crumbled

4 Tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cups beef stock

1 teaspoon saffron threads

3 large onions, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 10oz can of green chillies, chopped

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

8 oz tomato paste

16 oz canned diced tomatoes

4-6 cups cooked kidney beans (depending on personal preference)(1 cup frozen corn)

In a large saucepan, brown the beef and sausage in 2 tablespoons oil, drain off fat and reserve meat. In the same pot, add beef stock and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and crumble saffron into stock. Set aside to steep.

In another skillet, heat remaining oil and sweat onions and garlic. Add chillies and seasonings and stir.

In a large pot combine tomatoes, beef stock, onion/ spice mixture and meat. Stir well and simmer slowly, partially covered, for about 1½ hours. Check seasoning and adjust.

Add kidney beans and slowly cook another 10 minutes or so. Serve with crusty bread or cornbread. Garnish with any or all of the following: sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, sliced green onions or cubed avocado.