Every time I cook, the ghosts of my grandmothers are looking over my shoulder, inspecting my work.
One – my father’s mother, a city girl – is fingering a rosary, fretting that I won’t have time to make everything, that my knife cuts aren’t as precise as they should be, quietly giving me plattering and presentation advice and politely inquiring about, when, exactly, I intended to mix her a martini.
The other – my mother’s mother, a country girl – is urging me to stop being such an obsessive nut, that pie crust is for baking and eating not plaiting and braiding, remonstrating with me for spending $16 on a pound of meat, reminding me to leave the kitchen neater than I found it, and quietly asking me if I have a drinking problem when I sneak a sip of wine from the cup destined for the pan.
I’m big city and back woods; in my head, I carry a rolodex of recipes from the alleys and sidestreets of Southside Chicago and the byways and brooks of Indiana. Most of my cooking is based on classic American recipes I learned, if not from them, then from my parents, who learned from them. And the occasional leap toward culinary transcendence, courtesy of the endless cooking classes I’ve taken.
The gap, the tension, that exists between the two poles of our reality and our desires, our duties and our dreams, that gaping maw is the place where luck and gifts live.
As I go through life cooking up various plots and pots, I listen for my grandmothers, I listen for my gut. I try to find a place in the rumbling racket for my own beat; when I hear it, I jump in and crank up the fire.
These recipes are adaptations of standard dishes most American families make — braised meat, creamy noodles — with a few fancy tweaks. Dig in below!
Makes 6 servings
- 1 TBSP vegetable oil
- 2 pounds boneless short ribs, seasoned with salt and pepper
- 1 small onion, roughly chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups fruity red wine
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock (or homemade)
- 1 bunch thyme
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat oil in Dutch oven or deep skillet that is oven safe. Sear meat over high heat until deep, golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove from pan.
- Sautee onion in fat drippings until golden over medium heat. Add carrots, celery, garlic and sautee until golden. Deglaze with half the wine and cook down for a few minutes. Add the rest of the wine, the stock, beef and thyme. Cover and pop in oven for 1 ½-3 hours, until fork tender.
- Remove meat from liquid and set aside. Drain liquid in colander over bowl. Discard herbs, vegetables. Add liquids back to pot. Heat and cook down, skimming off fat as you go. When satisfied with consistency and flavor (add salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne if you a bit of kick, butter never hurts either).
- Pour over ribs and reheat in 350 degree oven when ready to eat. (The ribs and sauce can hold in separate containers until ready to go for up to 48 hours).
Nutritional Breakdown for Short Ribs: About 450 calories and 27 grams of fat.
Cost Breakdown for Short Ribs: About $6 per serving for really good meat.
Verdict / In the Future: Pot roasts are more my thing than Stephen’s thing. Pot roasts and slow-cooked anything “kind of taste like sadness” to him, which is equal parts disturbing and adorable.
Sweet Potato Puree
Makes 6 servings
- 3 big sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 TBSP light cream
- Salt, pepper, cinnamon, cayenne to taste
- Cook potatoes in salted water until fork tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain, reserving ½ cup cooking water.
- Puree in food processor with 2 TBSP light cream and seasonings. Thin with water when needed.
Nutritional Breakdown for Pureed Sweet Potatoes: About 130 calories and 2 grams of fat per serving. Full of fiber, Vitamin A, potassium, manganese. Not as starchy as regular baking potatoes.
Cost Breakdown for Pureed Sweet Potatoes: About $0.50 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: You can’t go wrong with root vegetable purees. They’re really a blank canvas: toss in scallions, butter, sour cream, creme fraiche, real cream or a bit of cheese.
Braised Saffron Chicken Pasta
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Makes 8 servings
- 3-4 pounds chicken thighs (I used a mixture of bone in and skin on and skinless), seasoned with salt and pepper
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 1 tsp saffron threads
- 3 cups vegetable broth
- 1 pound rigatoni or bow-tie pasta
- 1 cup light cream (it is summer)
- 2 TBSP fresh lemon juice (about a half a lemon)
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Grated Parmesan
- Heat oil in deep skillet or Dutch oven until almost smoking hot, over high heat. Add chicken thighs and brown well on all sides, about 5 minutes each side. Cook thighs with skin and bones a bit longer, about 8 minutes a side. Do this in batches – don’t crowd the pan because it will just steam the meat, instead of properly frying it.
- Remove chicken from pan and set aside. Lower heat to medium, add onions, salt and cook in fat drippings from chicken until translucent, but not taking on color, about five minutes.
- Meanwhile, add saffron to white wine to soften. Deglaze the pan with the wine and bring to boil. After about a minute, add the vegetable stock and bring to boil. Add chicken back into the pan and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cover, poaching the chicken over low until cooked through. This will take about 10 minutes for thighs without skin or bones, but up to 45 minutes for big thighs with skin and bones. (To test doneness, make a small incision in the thigh and peek at the flesh; if still pink, continue to cook).
- Remove chicken from broth and remove broth from heat. When chicken cools a bit, shred with two forks into bite-size pieces, discarding skin and bones as you go.
- Cook pasta in boiling, salted water and drain, reserving some pasta cooking water (about 1 cup to be safe).
- Heat the poaching broth over medium heat, skimming off any excess fat. Add cream to pot and boil until it reduces and thickens to desired consistency (I cook until nappe, or thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon). Add the chicken pieces, lemon juice, season to taste and add the drained pasta. Toss to coat. Thin with pasta water if necessary. Garnish with basil and grated Parmesan if desired.
Nutritional Breakdown for Braised Saffron Pasta: About 430 calories and 11.5 grams of fat. Full of Vitamin A, Riboflavin, protein, iron, potassium, selenium.
Cost Breakdown for Braised Saffron Pasta: Saffron is hella expensive, but worth it every once in a while. About $5.00 per serving, using organic meat, less if not.
Verdict / In the Future: Creamy, filling, carb-y and not dominated by spice or garlic (though definitely not bland), this is Stephen’s ideal meal. We used light cream, which worked surprisingly well; I’m always anxious about using dairy products that have reduced fat, but you can still boil light cream without curdling it and heavy whipping cream would just bog this dish down.