Sourdough Waffles

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I should probably tell you right off the bat that I have absolutely no business preaching to you about sourdough.  I love a good, tangy baguette as much as the next person, and while I do enjoy baking bread every once in a while, making sourdough at home has always seemed way beyond my skill level, something only to be attempted by people with far more talent and confidence than I have.  Truth is, I wouldn’t be talking about this at all if it weren’t for my lovely friend Sam, who recently gave me a portion of his own sourdough starter, which he nurtures as if it were a beloved pet.  And, in a small way, it is a beloved pet– it’s alive, and it has to be fed and changed on a fairly regular schedule.

You’ll notice that I have my jar of starter labeled as “The Precious.”  That’s the name Sam gave his starter– an indication of how much time and love he has invested in the stuff– and I didn’t think I’d earned the right to rename my batch.  At least not yet.

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I haven’t yet worked up the courage to make bread with my starter.  However, at each feeding, any starter beyond four ounces must either be used or tossed, and the King Arthur Flour sourdough guide (which seems like a good resource if you want to try all this yourself) recommends using the discard to make waffles.  And you don’t have to tell me twice to make waffles.

The beautiful thing about this recipe is that it asks you to do almost all the work the night before you actually make the waffles.  So while it’s not exactly something you can whip up at a moment’s notice, it’s a breeze to pull together if you planned ahead; you simply roll out of bed, crack a couple of eggs into the overnight batter, add a couple more ingredients, and throw it in the waffle iron.  Done and done.

The other beautiful thing about these waffles is that they work equally well with sweet or savory toppings.  While my natural inclination is to douse pretty much every breakfast with maple syrup, for this, my first use of sourdough, I decided to take a page from Sam’s book.  Sam never spares any effort in his cooking, so I decided to dress these waffles up right with some coarsely grated smoked cheddar, over-easy eggs, a drizzle of spicy salsa, and some snipped chives.  (If only I’d had a bit of crème fraîche as well!)  This meal also makes a stellar dinner, in case you were wondering.

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Here’s hoping this easy-breezy first run with sourdough starter inspires me to keep on pushing until I’m back here with some pristine baguettes!  Until then– there’s nothing wrong with breakfast.

Sourdough Waffles
from King Arthur Flour

for the overnight sponge:
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed

for the waffle batter:
all of the overnight sponge
2 large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

To make the overnight sponge, stir down your refrigerated starter, and remove 1 cup.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together the 1 cup starter, flour, sugar, and buttermilk.  Cover and let rest at room temperature overnight.

In a small bowl or mixing cup, beat together the eggs, and oil or butter. Add to the overnight sponge.  Add the salt and baking soda, stirring to combine. The batter will bubble.

Pour batter onto your preheated, greased waffle iron, and bake according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Serve waffles immediately, to ensure crispness. Or hold in a warm oven till ready to serve.

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Chocolate Chip Pistachio Cookies with Smoked Salt

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Greetings from the frozen wasteland that is the city of Boston!  We are currently digging out from under our fourth blizzard in as many weeks.  My positive-thinking initiative is still going, but this winter is really trying my patience.  I’d complain about the terrible (i.e. non-existent) public transit conditions and the subzero temperatures, but frankly, I’m just tired of it.  It’s all anyone’s talking about, and I’d just rather talk about cookies.

I made these on a Sunday afternoon, the day before Alex left town for a week.  I was stuck inside, I felt like baking, and I figured that a big batch of cookies would be ideal for sending off with Alex on his trip.  And it’s a good thing I was able to pawn them off so quickly, because these are possibly the most addictive cookies I’ve ever made.  I don’t even know how many I must have eaten fresh out of the oven, much less in the few days following.  These cookies take the fail-proof sweet and salty combination and amp it up– there’s even a little smoky flavor in there for good measure.  That comes primarily from a sprinkling of smoked salt on each cookie, but I also threw in a chopped up bar of Mast Brothers vanilla and smoke dark chocolate, which is super delicious, but allllmost too dark for me to eat on its own.

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The only labor-intensive part of the cookie making process is shelling pistachios.  Yes, you can buy them pre-shelled, but I find that there are always a few bad ones that sneak in; if you buy them in the shell, then you have greater control over quality.  An 8oz bag will do the trick nicely.

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The icing on the cake, as it were, is the smoked salt that tops each cookie.  I used smoked Maldon, which is delightfully flaky and crunchy– it makes me wonder why every cookie doesn’t have a sprinkle on top.

Only one thing can possibly make these cookies any better than they already are: bottomless hot coffee.  Ok, maybe two things: bottomless hot coffee, and a dog whose new favorite thing is burrowing only halfway under the blanket on the couch:

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With these cookies in my baking arsenal, I am confident I will survive the rest of the winter– and maybe, just maybe, do it in style.

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Chocolate Chip Pistachios Cookies with Smoked Salt
from Homemade Decadence

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips (the darker the better)
1 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
smoked salt for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter and sugars and beat until pale and fluffy.  Add the egg and beat for about 1 minute.  Add vanilla and beat until incorporated.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt; whisk until combined.  Add the flour mixture all at once to the butter mixture.  Beat on low speed until just incorporated.  Beat in the chocolate chips and pistachios.

Spoon cookie dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet (about 2 Tablespoons per cookie, about 2 inches apart) and sprinkle with the smoked salt.  Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are just beginning to turn golden.

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Garlic and Pine Nut Hummus

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Confession time: I do not like beans.  I feel that, as someone who loves food, nutrition, and frugality, this is one of the worst, most shocking things I could possibly say, but it’s true.  I have never cared for beans (except for beans that are green, and beans that turn into coffee).  This has closed off to me a world of foods that other people seem to find delicious: chili, bean dip, certain burritos, countless soups.  Being a food person who doesn’t like beans is like being a Christian who doesn’t like contemporary Christian music: you’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but some people will give you weird looks because of it.

Incidentally, I am also a Christian who does not like contemporary Christian music.  In high school, my two closest church friends (who are still two of my best friends today) tried valiantly to fix this for me; they gave me CD after CD of every possible style of worship music, but I never made it past track two before going, “Well, that’s enough of that.”  (The only album I was ever able to listen to in its entirety, I found out later, loosely mimicked the structure of Anglican liturgy, which was a fun little bit of real-life foreshadowing).  I worried about this for a while– what did it say about me if I bought into the message of the music in general, but just couldn’t stomach the stuff?  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that preferences are preferences– we’re all free to like and dislike whatever music we choose– and the same goes for food.

But it’s harder for me to stop challenging my aversion to beans.  Nutritionally speaking, you’d be hard pressed to get more bang for your buck with any other pantry staple.  Aesthetically, there are some really attractive beans out there which look good enough to eat.  And furthermore, the idea of a batch of beautiful, heirloom beans simmering away in a pot on the stove just sounds so comforting and quaint that I feel like I’m missing out on one of life’s great pleasures, just because I’m pretty sure that those beautiful, heirloom beans, once cooked, would taste just like every other bean: i.e., like dirt.

So, given this lifelong aversion to beans, you might think it strange that I’m devoting an entire post to hummus, a dip that is made almost entirely of beans (call ‘em chickpeas if you like, but they’re still beans to me).  Well, friend, that is entirely due to the power of good food writing.  In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, bloggers everywhere were posting their best game-day food recipes, and this recipe popped up on Foodspin– the food-centric offshoot of the sports blog Deadspin.  I’ve never mentioned Foodspin on this blog, because– well, I like to keep things pretty straight-laced around here, and straight-laced Foodspin is not.  But the guy who writes most of the content, one Albert Burneko, has wit and intelligence to spare, and amid all the colorful language and playful name-calling, there’s always something that makes me laugh so hard I nearly spit out my coffee.  An example:

“On the other hand, if you are worried about additives and preservatives and the like, maybe lighten up a little bit, there, but also, you can use dried chickpeas, ya big fraidycat.  Dump, oh, a pound of dried chickpeas into a big bowl, cover them with water so they’re a couple of inches below the surface (so they’ve got room to expand as they soak), then leave ‘em overnight.  In the morning, or whenever you feel like you’re about two hours away from being ready for some hummus, move the chickpeas to a big pot, cover them with fresh water (again so they’re well submerged), and simmer them for 90 minutes.  There.  Now they are ready to be made into hummus, which everybody else had yesterday because they used canned chickpeas, but at least now you can be sure that when you eventually grow an arm out of the back of your neck, it won’t be because of canned-chickpea preservatives.”

So, if you feel so inclined, check the link at the bottom of the post, and if you’d rather stick with my family-friendly content, well, that’s why I’m here.

But, as I was saying, the way this blog described the homemade hummus, with whole cloves of garlic and roasted pine nuts and sprinklings of aromatic spices, made my ears perk up.  I’ve eaten a good bit of store-bought hummus and found it tolerable, so I thought that if I made my own, it might be the ticket to finally enjoying beans.  So I gave it a go.

The first thing I learned was that my mini food chopper is just too mini to handle an entire can of chickpeas, so I had to work in batches.

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And I also forgot to reserve some of the liquid from the can, which was supposed to go in later to loosen up the hummus, so I used olive oil instead.  (So much for a low-fat snack, I suppose.)

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I also bought a jar of tahini specifically for this purpose, and I think it’s the best thing I got out of this whole experience.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with it in other kitchen projects. (I also have a giant bag of za’atar that I bought when I only needed a teensy bit, so I think things are about to take a Middle Eastern turn around here.)

It turns out that making hummus is a breeze.  The only thing you need to cook is the pine nuts: just a handful in a dry skillet over medium-high heat.  If you’re like me, though, you should probably devote your full attention to that task; every time I leave toasting pine nuts unattended, I burn them.  It’s worth the five minutes to get it right the first time.

Once your hummus is perfectly smooth and creamy, pour those lovely pine nuts in the middle, and cover the whole thing with a light dusting of cumin and paprika (smoked paprika is particularly nice here, if you have it).  And then all you have to do is put out some pita, naan, or– if you want to go low-brow like me– plain Sun Chips, and dig in.  An easy, filling, and healthy snack, which will probably last you for several days, took you only about five minutes to prepare.

Of course, I have to tell you that I still thought this hummus tasted like beans, so I can’t exactly say that I loved it.  But, the garlic flavor was especially pronounced, fresh lemon juice added a pleasant zing, and the spices on top were a lovely touch, so overall, I’d say it was the best hummus I’ve had.  And if you’re a person who likes beans, then I think you will love it.  So there you have it.

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Garlic and Pine Nut Hummus
adapted from Foodspin

1 can chickpeas, drained
juice from 1 lemon
2 fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup pine nuts
olive oil
salt
cumin
paprika (preferably smoked, but regular is fine)

In a food processor or chopper, combine drained chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic cloves, and tahini.  (You may need to work in batches if your chopper is small.)  Blend until solids are broken down and mixture is mostly smooth.

Add olive oil, a drizzle at a time, and blend until the hummus reaches your desired consistency, tasting often to check and adjust flavors, if necessary.  Add salt to taste, and scoop hummus into a bowl.  Using a spoon, make a small well in the center of the hummus.

In a skillet over medium-high heat, toast the pine nuts, shaking the pan often, until they are fragrant and golden brown.  Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the pine nuts, and pour them into the well in the hummus.  Sprinkle the hummus with pinches of cumin and paprika.

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake

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Sometime around September of last year, I realized that winter was coming– just like last year, and the year before that, and pretty much every year, come to think of it.  Knowing that there was no way to stop it, and knowing that we had no plans to migrate South (at least not long-term), I turned to the only thing I thought might help me cope: positive thinking.  Or, as I like to call it, lying to myself.  Every time I felt a chill in the air or thought about snow piles and wool socks, I forced myself to say, either silently or aloud, “It’s gonna be great!  I’m so excited!  I love winter!”  I figured that if I told this to myself often enough, I could trick myself into believing it.

I’m happy to report that this trickery totally worked!  Of course, it probably also helps that I finally, finally bought a down coat (I refused for a long time because I didn’t want to look puffy, but this year I decided I didn’t care), traded in my clunky five-year-old snowboots with zero tread and a broken zipper for a sleek pair of L.L. Bean laceups, and stocked up on fleece leggings.  It definitely helps that my mom crocheted me three warm hats and one chunky scarf.  But beyond all that, I find that I just feel more at peace with the season this time around.  It is what it is, come blizzard or ice patches on the sidewalk.

And it’s a good thing, too, because last week we got about 30 inches of snow dumped on us in one day.  Blizzards are tricky when you work in a grocery store; the day before the big show, you spend hours slinging cartons of eggs and jugs of milk to all the shoppers who are so certain the apocalypse is at hand.  And, unless the whole city shuts down as a result of the snow, you’re going to have to trudge through it the next day, because grocery stores need to be open, and you work at a grocery store.  But this past Tuesday?  Helloooo, citywide travel ban, and helloooo, official snow day!  And what better way to spend such a day than making cake?

I found this recipe in Baked Explorations, possibly my favorite baking cookbook.  I hope I someday find the time to make pretty much every recipe in this book, but this time I had to choose based on the ingredients I had on hand (because, travel ban!! no stores open!).  The original recipe also calls for cream cheese frosting; you better believe I would have included it if I’d had any cream cheese in my fridge.  Since I did not, a scoop of ice cream made an admirable substitute.

One of the best things about this cake is that you don’t even have to break out your mixer; it all comes together with a couple of bowls and a spatula.  The bowls contain all the usual suspects: flour, baking powder, cinnamon, sugar, etc.  What makes the cake sing is chewy oats and (be still my heart) Bourbon-coated chocolate chips.

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The purpose of the Bourbon, I must admit, is more functional than anything.  Coating the chocolate chips with flour prevents them from sinking through the batter and landing at the bottom of the cake pan, and the Bourbon helps the flour stick to the chocolate chips.  But still, doesn’t it just warm your heart to know that there’s a nip of Bourbon in there?

20150127_160118 This cake has helped me conclude that there is absolutely nothing better on a snow day than the warm smell of chocolate, cinnamon, and Bourbon emanating from your oven (with the possible exception of the classic warm blanket-soft pup-sweet husband-couch combo– that one is hard to beat).  And the finished product is no joke, either; with a texture somewhere between a blondie and a cookie cake, it hits all the right chewy/sticky/cakey notes.  It’s like all your favorite desserts rolled into one, with ice cream on top.

And it’s a good thing I still have some of this cake left over, because today, Boston is a snow globe once again.  I love it.  It’s gonna be great.

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake
adapted from Baked Explorations

8 ounces chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon Bourbon
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup oats (I used Irish Oatmeal– I think it’s safe to use whatever you have in your pantry)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, at room temperature
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375°F; position a rack in the center of the oven.  Butter the sides and bottom of a 9×13″ baking pan.  Heat 1 1/4 cups of water to boiling.

Place the chocolate chips in a small bowl and toss with the Bourbon.  Add 2 Tablespoons of flour and toss again to coat.  Set aside.

Place oats and cubed butter in a large bowl.  Pour the boiling water over the mixture, wait 30 seconds, and stir to moisten the oats and melt the butter.  Set mixture aside for about half an hour.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, sugars, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon until combined.  Gently fold in the remaining flour and then add the chocolate chips.  Pour the batter into prepared pan, and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cool cake in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.  Serve with a scoop of your favorite ice cream.

 

 

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Buttercup Squash and Sage Biscuits

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I don’t think I can tell you how difficult it’s been to sit in this apartment all day long with these biscuits.  Combine their enticing scent, their visual appeal, and my unstoppable appetite for carbs, and it’s a wonder I’ve managed to eat anything else in the last seven hours.

One of my coworkers first mentioned this recipe to me the week before Thanksgiving, and it’s been dancing around in my brain ever since.  Squash and sage are two of my favorite ingredients, and biscuits are always satisfying and fun to make; it seemed like an ideal project for me, but I could never seem to find the time to get it done.  However, this Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful hand-carved wooden biscuit cutter, which was all the motivation I needed.  Earlier this week, on my first “normal” day off of the year, I got to work on these biscuits first thing in the morning.

The first step in the process is to roast the squash.  The original recipe called for delicata squash, which is a good choice; delicatas tend to be on the smaller side, and the recipe only calls for a half-cup of mashed squash, so with a delicata, you’ll use just about all of the flesh.  However, I forgot to pick one up at work, and the grocery in my neighborhood didn’t have any, so I opted for buttercup squash. (If you’re wondering what a buttercup squash looks like, you’re not alone; the cashier picked it up, examined it, and looked at me like I was trying to buy an alien life form.)  You could also use butternut or acorn squash, or even sweet potatoes if you prefer.

The flavor of the squash in these biscuits is perfectly accented by the fresh sage.  A few chopped leaves go in the dough, and each biscuit is topped with a whole leaf, which gets deliciously crunchy in the oven.

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The dough for these biscuits is really easy to put together.  I tried a new trick for this batch: instead of rubbing cubes of cold butter into the flour mixture, I used a coarse grater to shred the butter.  That way it takes practically no effort, and makes considerably less mess, to incorporate the butter into the flour.  And, as my friend Sam explained to me, it keeps the butter from warming up, as it can do if you’re breaking down bigger chunks with your hands.  Once the flour and butter mixture looks coarse and relatively uniform, add a mixture of cream and the cooked squash, and stir gently until just barely combined.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface.  It doesn’t even need to be rolled– you can just gently pat it into a 3/4 inch thickness with your hands.

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I love that biscuit cutter!  But if you don’t have one, you can always use a round cookie cutter or a glass.  Or if even that seems like too much trouble, you can gently cut the dough into rough squares.

Brush the tops of the biscuits with a mixture of egg and milk– just enough to add an attractive sheen and help the sage leaves stick to the dough. Then into the oven they go!

The biscuits will fill your house with a warm, sweet, herbal fragrance that will linger for the rest of the afternoon.  They taste just as good as they smell, and they have a beautifully soft, cakey texture.  Soften some good butter, pour a cup of hot coffee, and dig in.  Try to save some for when your husband gets home (good luck).

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Buttercup Squash and Sage Biscuits
adapted from PBS via Kitchen Vignettes

1 small butternut squash (1/2 cup squash purée)
2 cups white flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
1 small bunch of fresh sage (1 1/2 tsp. chopped and 10 whole leaves for garnish)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 Tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds and pulp and discard.  Place squash, cut side down, on a foil lined baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until flesh is soft and scoopable.  Scoop out the flesh and mash in a bowl with a fork.  Cover the bowl with plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Using a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture. Place this mixture in the freezer while you prepare the wet ingredients.

In another bowl, mix the chilled cream, 1/2 cup of the squash purée (reserve remaining squash purée for another use– pumpkin ice cream, anyone?), and finely chopped sage. Whisk together until smooth. In another smaller bowl, make the egg wash by beating the egg and 1 Tablespoon of milk together.

Remove the dry ingredients from the freezer. Using a spatula (or your hands), make sure the grated butter is fully incorporated into the flour (it should look like coarse meal). Gently add the squash and cream mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with the spatula just until the dough starts to come together. Using your hands, lightly knead the dough in the bowl, being careful not to overhandle it.

Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and gently press the dough out to 3/4 inch thickness. Using a 2 1/2 inch round biscuit cutter, cut out the biscuits. Brush the tops with egg wash and gently press a whole sage leaf on top of each biscuit. Place on a lightly buttered baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in a 400F oven, until golden on top. Transfer the biscuits to a cooling rack and serve warm.

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Provencal Tuna Salad

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First off: I know.  It’s a fairly weird move to start off a brand new year of blogging with a recipe for tuna salad, a dish with as many detractors as it has fans.  But you know what?  I love tuna salad.  It almost feels like an insult to my parents’ wonderful cooking to say this, but one of my favorite childhood dinner memories is sitting around a communal bowl of tuna salad with Ritz crackers on summer nights– usually church nights, or evenings when my Dad had to make it to the racquetball courts in just an hour after getting home from work.  Tuna salad is a super-fast meal to put together, and it’s satisfying and healthy (depending, of course, on the ingredients you use to dress it).  I’m sad to say that I haven’t yet convinced my husband that tuna salad is worth eating, but it’s been a lunch staple for me for years.

This particular recipe comes from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, a cookbook inspired by the popular podcast.  My copy was a wedding present from my dear friend Heather and her parents, and the sweet notes they wrote to me and Alex on the inside cover are even more precious to me than the recipes in the book.  That said, my new year’s resolution (the kitchen portion of my resolution, that is) is to cook my way through this book by year’s end.  I’ve already made decent headway through the segment on salad dressing (so many great ideas in this book– if you’re a salad lover, it’s definitely worth checking out), and I cannot wait to see what other treasures are lurking in the other pages.  But for today, it only seems natural to whip up a batch of tuna salad.

At first glance, the ingredients in this recipe might seem a little odd.  With so many bold flavors in play– briny Niçoise olives and capers, potent red onions, tangy fresh dill, sweet tomatoes, sour lemon juice– it seems like all the components might fight each other.  But once they’re combined and given time to marry, they all blend together harmoniously, adding up to a dish that is well-balanced, delicious, and utterly more-ish. I had a very hard time resisting the urge to scarf down the entire salad while it was supposed to be marinating.

Assembly is a snap for this dish.  First, break up about 17 ounces of drained, water-packed albacore tuna in a large bowl (the original recipe calls for three 6-oz cans, but I had a hard time finding that measurement, so I used one 12-ounce can and one 5-ounce).  Add all the dry ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, pitted Niçoise olives (or halved kalamatas, if you prefer), capers (normally not an ingredient I love, but delicious in this salad), minced red onion, and finely chopped dill leaves.  Add olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice, and fold everything together with a rubber spatula, taking care to incorporate all the bits and pieces that tend to cling to the sides of the bowl.

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Next: taste, taste, taste several forkfuls of the mixture.  You’ll likely need to add a bit of salt and pepper, but with so many bold and salty ingredients in the mix already, you’ll need to know what your baseline flavors are before you pick up a shaker. Once the salad tastes like you want it to, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for at least an hour.  If you’re stuck for what to do during that hour, I suggest back episodes of Top Chef– I’m currently on season 10, the excitement of which is slightly tempered by the fact that I already know Kristen wins (Go Boston!).

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After the salad has had time to let all its components meld, pile it up on hearty bread or whole wheat crackers– olive oil and dill Triscuits are my favorite– and revel in the fact that you extracted such a good meal from so little effort.

Cheers to a new year, and many new food adventures!

Provencal Tuna Salad
from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

17-18 ounces water-packed albacore tuna, drained
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
1/2 cup whole Niçoise or halved Kalamata olives
3 Tablespoons drained capers
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Place the drained tuna in a large bowl, and break it into chunks with a fork.  Fold in the tomatoes, olives, capers, red onion, and fresh dill.  Pour in the olive oil and lemon juice; taste, and add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Let stand at room temperature for about an hour.  Serve  with slices of hearty bread or whole wheat crackers.

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Let’s Talk About Food

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Well, hello there.  As I mentioned last week, my good camera is out of commission.  For the last little while, I’ve been relying on the camera I’ve had since college, a pocket-sized Sony Cybershot that has definitely seen better days, thanks in part to the fact that it lived in my purse for the better part of five years.  As I was clearing out space on the tiny camera’s memory card to make room for an onslaught of new blog photos, I ran across the shot above.  I don’t remember when or where it was taken, but I’m glad I saw fit to save it.  It could easily have been taken in the last few days in Boston, when the sky has been steely gray, but there are still small bits of color on the trees here and there.

This is a busy season for everyone, but especially for those who work in retail.  Whether you’re selling clothes or groceries or something else entirely, you are absolutely going to be up to your elbows in customers for the entire month of December.  It’s a fact of life, and in many ways, it’s a good thing; more customers = more opportunities to show your stuff, more opportunities to hone your craft.  The only bad thing is that all that busy-ness at work reduces the energy I have to devote to non-work pursuits, including blogging, unfortunately.

So today, instead of showing you a new recipe, I’m playing along with a project started by The Shortbread, whose aim is to host food conversations among people who are not food writers.  Mind you, The Shortbread has not asked me to respond to its questionnaire, but when someone publicly starts a culinary discussion, I can’t help but respond.  Let’s go!

Name: Jesi Dunaway Nishibun

Date / Time / Your location: December 9, 2014; 9:22pm; the right side of a red couch in my apartment in Allston, MA

What is the last thing you ate? A heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, which Alex made for me. 

What is the most interesting item in your fridge or freezer right now? Probably the most interesting thing is the vast quantity of condiment jars, but if I had to pick a single item, I’d probably choose a jar of everything bagel mustard, aptly titled Deli Dirt, from Green Mountain Mustard.

Tell me about a food that evokes nostalgia for a certain time or place for you. Thick-sliced, garden-fresh summer tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper will always and forever remind me of my Grandmother’s kitchen table.

Talk about your favorite restaurant in your home town. Eating out is practically a sport in Dothan, Alabama, but the majority of our restaurants are chains.  My family and I used to joke (in a “just kidding… but seriously” kind of way) that it was a waste of time to eat out, since we ate so well at home.  However, my favorite restaurant for a long time was River Nile, a very cutesy sandwich shop/bakery/coffee house that started out in an adorably rustic space in our tiny downtown.  I loved River Nile so much that I worked for them between my sophomore and junior years of college (at that time, they were housed in a building right next door to my dad’s workplace, so I got to see him fairly often); since my turf, the hostess stand, was right beside the bakery case, I got to eat all the raspberry-white chocolate scones that “accidentally” broke.  I’m having a hard time figuring out whether they’re still in business.

What is the best meal you’ve had while traveling? A few years ago, Alex spent a summer in Portland, Maine, singing with a young artist program.  When I went to visit, he took me to Emilitsa, an upscale Greek restaurant, where I had a meal I still dream about. It started with a plate of housemade hummus (usually I can take or leave hummus, but this was incredible), which was followed by the best lamb I’ve ever tasted.  But the coup de grâce was a cheesecake made from sheep’s milk yogurt, topped with cherry compote and a sheet of doily-like crystallized sugar.  Actually, can we go there right now?

What is your favorite item in your kitchen – this could be a cooking tool or something entirely non-food related. Probably my stack of mismatched salad plates.

What is your favorite image of food from a movie or book? Without question: the scene from Hook in which Peter finally plays make-believe with the lost boys.  While they scarf down an invisible feast, Peter scoops up a wad of imaginary food and flicks it at Rufio, and suddenly the table is filled with beautiful, delicious food.  I remember being simultaneously disgusted and intrigued by all the bowls of rainbow colored goop.

Describe your ideal sandwich. The Farmer’s Lunch from City Feed in Jamaica Plain: a baguette stuffed with mayo, whole-grain mustard, pickled green tomato, Granny Smith apple slices, sharp cheddar, and red romaine.

What makes for great barbecue?  It’s probably blasphemous to ignore the meat entirely, but for me, it’s all about perfect baked beans– with ample quantities of brown sugar and molasses.

What do you like to eat when the weather is hottest? Joe’s carnitas and sangria.

What do you like to eat when it is freezing cold outside? A big bowl of tomato soup and a simple salad with Dijon vinaigrette, both topped with homemade croutons.

What can you cook really well? How did you learn this dish? Describe the process. I can make a delicious, velvety butternut squash, sweet potato, and/or carrot soup with my eyes closed.  I learned it because I was trying to replicate a restaurant favorite, and I made it over and over and over in my first apartment in Jamaica Plain, often making use of whatever ingredients I happened to have on hand.

What would you like to be able to cook well? Meat.  My current title is “queen of the sides,” which suits me fine, but I’d love to be able to turn out a great steak, too.

What is the best meal you’ve eaten for under five dollars? A pork bahn mi with sliced jalapeños from New Saigon Sandwich in Boston’s Chinatown.

What has been your most satisfying food splurge? Room service breakfast on the first morning of my honeymoon with Alex.  It wasn’t so much the price of the food that made it a splurge, but the sheer decadence of having food delivered right to our door, which we then ate in our bathrobes.

Tell me about an experience or person that has changed or inspired the way you eat. He’d probably be surprised to hear this, since I don’t think he considers himself much of a food person, but I’d have to name Alex.  He introduced me to Korean, Vietnamese, and German fare; he instilled in me a love for burritos that continues to this day; and he taught me not to be afraid of cooking meat until it’s super browned (before he came along, I was so afraid of burning food– and setting off the smoke alarm–that everything came out of my pan looking pale and flabby).

A food ethic is a set of values and principles that guide the choices you make about what to eat. Describe your personal food ethic. I’ll offer two thoughts: 1) When guests show up at your house, feed them, whether you expected them or not. 2) To paraphrase from the legendary Cajun chef, Justin Wilson: “What wine should you drink with this?  Whichever one you like.”

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Wonton Soup

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I’ve been watching a lot of Top Chef lately.  Not the most recent season, mind you (so no spoilers, please!)– I basically quit watching after season 6 and am just now going back to watch the rest on Hulu.  On one hand, watching Top Chef reminds me of all the reasons I don’t want to cook professionally (insane hours, crazy pressure, the fact that I don’t know what “brunoise” means).  On the other, Top Chef is always inspiring; it makes me especially proud of the very few chef-y things I can do, and it makes me want to jump in the kitchen and try new things.

I also enjoy learning chef lingo from the show’s contestants.  The phrase I’ve heard tossed around most often lately is “in the weeds,” which as far as I can tell, means some combination of “I’m falling behind schedule/nothing’s going right with this dish/I’m desperately trying to get it done.”  I’m so glad I learned this term, because that means I can tell you that lately, this blog and I have been in the weeds.  I can’t even tell you how many recipes I’ve botched in the last few weeks (including sugar cookies, which you might think are a snap to make– but no), or how many times I took pictures of the whole cooking process and forgot to photograph the finished product.  And then, the cherry on top: my good camera is on the fritz, which is both a fact and an apology for the low quality of the photos in this post.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that this post is about wonton soup.  Wonton soup is my ultimate comfort food.  It’s what I want when I’m sick, it’s what I want when it’s slushy and freezing outside, and as I learned this week, it’s also what I want when I’m frustrated.  It’s a little time consuming to make, but it’s easy, and it makes an enormous batch that will feed you for about a week.  That means you get to take at least one of the next few nights off from dinner preparation.  Here’s how to do it.

First, get your broth going.  Making broth from scratch is not one of the aforementioned chef-y things I know how to do, so I start with boxed broth and dress it up with sliced scallions, a squeeze of lime juice, and a drizzle of sesame oil.  Let it simmer while you make the dumplings.

You’ll prepare a quick filling that consists of ground pork, finely chopped raw shrimp, some minced ginger and garlic, and a few other ingredients (not pictured, because raw ground meat just ain’t that pretty).  And then comes the fun part: assembly!

Lay a wonton wrapper on a cutting board, and have a bowl of water nearby.  Spoon about a teaspoonful of filling in the center of the wrapper, then dip your finger in the water bowl and wet the border of the wrapper.  Fold the wrapper in half diagonally to make a triangle shape, and press the edges of the wrapper together.  Next, wet one of the bottom corners of your wonton triangle, and press the two bottom corners together.  It’ll look like this:

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You can leave the wonton as-is at this point, but I like to fold the top corner down as well, a-like so:

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So, a fair warning: this recipe makes a lot of wontons.  Like, sixty wontons, minimum.  If you’re not the type of person who enjoys repetitive tasks, definitely get a friend to help you make them.  I happen to have a certain gift for repetitive tasks; I find them relaxing and meditative.  That gift has served me well in my professional life.  Whether I’m folding an entire wall of men’s T-shirts or breaking down a 20-pound slab of Gruyere into uniform pieces, I always find my hands doing the work and my mind going into a Zen-like state of reflection.

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Once all your wontons are assembled (or, once you’ve made as many as you can stand and have stashed the remaining filling and extra wrappers in the fridge), add the dumplings to the simmering broth.  Also, throw in some baby bok choy, or if you can’t find the baby ones, regular-sized bok choy chopped into bite-sized pieces.  Let it all simmer away for 10 minutes (the wonton wrappers will adhere to the filling and start to look deliciously brainy), then cut a wonton in half to check for doneness.  Simmer a bit longer if the filling is undercooked.

When the wontons are done, fill up a nice big bowl and, if you feel like it, top with more sliced scallions, chopped cilantro, and another squeeze of lime.  And then let the soup wash all your troubles away.

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Back soon with more non-botched recipes (I hope)!

Wonton Soup
adapted from Joylicious (This blog post is totally adorable.  Go read it!)

for the broth
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
one bunch scallions, white parts only, sliced
one lime wedge

for the wontons
one-half pound shrimp, shelled and chopped fine
about 14 oz ground pork
1/2 egg white
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 t salt
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 package wonton wrappers

15-20 baby bok choy, stems trimmed, or 1 bunch regular bok choy, cut into bite-sized pieces

for garnish
lime wedges
1 bunch scallions, green parts only, sliced
chopped cilantro
sesame oil

In a medium soup pot over medium-high heat, simmer chicken stock with pepper, sesame oil, green onions, and the juice from one lime wedge.

Meanwhile, assemble the dumplings. Combine all filling ingredients (shrimp through sugar) in a bowl, stirring well with a fork to mix.  Spoon the filling by the teaspoonful into the center of the wonton wrappers.  Moisten the edges of each wonton wrapper, fold in half diagonally, and press edges together to form a triangle-shaped dumpling.  Moisten one of the bottom corners of the wonton triangle, and bring the two bottom corners together, pressing to seal.  Moisten the top corner, and press it into the joined bottom corners.

When the dumplings are assembled, simmer them in the prepared broth for 10 minutes; add the bok choy to the broth along with the wontons.  After 10 minutes, test a wonton for doneness, adding extra cooking time if necessary.  Serve soup with lime wedges, chopped scallions, cilantro, and a drizzle of sesame oil.

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Pumpkin Cranberry White Chocolate Cookies

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I’ve noticed a trend in social media over the last few weeks: a total backlash against fall in general and pumpkin-flavored foodstuffs in particular.  I love pumpkin, but I can understand this.  I remember that during my freshman year of college (2005, holy cow), the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte was basically the only pumpkin-flavored product on the market, and I wolfed those lattes down with reckless abandon.  However, over the course of a decade or so, other food producers have taken note of the success of the PSL (as Starbucks now abbreviates the pumpkin spice latte, annoyingly enough) and churned out every pumpkin-flavored product that mortal brains can concoct, from trail mix to coffee to beer to Greek yogurt (gross).  And if there’s one thing people hate, it’s being inundated with things, even things they like.  Maybe especially things they like.  Having a beloved food thrown repeatedly in your face flares up the “I liked this before it was trendy” feeling like nothing else can.

But overhyped or not, pumpkin baked goods are without a doubt one of my favorite aspects of cooler weather.  I’m on a personal mission this year to embrace the cold—winter won’t be any warmer or any shorter if I resist it, after all—so I am going to revel in all my pumpkin pastries for as long as I can, even if the internet says that makes me “basic.”

Speaking of which, if you’ll allow me the tangent: this whole trend of calling people “basic” needs to die, and now.  For the uninitiated: “basic” refers to a female who is supposedly unoriginal and boring.  There are some particular fashion choices and turns of phrase that warrant the label– e.g. leggings, boots, and scarves; “I can’t even,” etc– and, at this point, the pumpkin spice latte (and pretty much anything from Starbucks) is completely synonymous with “basic.”  I get why these things are easy and amusing to make fun of, but 1) it’s lame to make fun of people based on what they wear and how they take their coffee, and 2) it basically sets up a lose-lose situation for us girls.  If you step out in riding boots and a fall scarf and order your coffee from Starbucks, you’re basic, but if you wear unusual clothes and order black coffee from a independent cafe, you’re a pretentious hipster.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like spending precious energy scrutinizing my every decision to make sure it stands up to some ridiculously vague standard of fashionability, so how about we all just enjoy the things we enjoy– especially things as simple as our morning beverage and footwear choices– and stop ragging on people who enjoy different things.  Sound like a plan?

Anyway, these cookies are full of pumpkin and other treats, and you should definitely make them at your earliest opportunity.

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(I always buy the One-Pie pumpkin puree solely because of the nifty vintage-looking label.)

One of the best things about these cookies is that you don’t have to worry about softening the butter ahead of time.  There are few things worse when you’re getting ready to make cookies than realizing that your butter is still hanging out in the fridge.  For these cookies, you melt the butter in a saucepan along with the pumpkin and spices, and then mix all the ingredients together by hand.  It’s such an easy recipe, and yet the results are so satisfying.  The cookies are somewhat cakey, sort of like a cross between a muffin top and a scone, and the addition of white chocolate chips mimics the frosting you might find on a pumpkin cake.  Dried cranberries add a tart edge, which keeps the white chocolate from being overwhelmingly sweet.

And I dare anyone who thinks pumpkin is stupid to walk into my kitchen while these cookies are baking and turn up their nose.  If the smell of warm cinnamon and sugar wafting out of the oven doesn’t soften your heart, then I don’t know what to tell you.  But then again, if that does nothing for you, well, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway.

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Pumpkin Cranberry White Chocolate Cookies
adapted from Homemade Decadence

1 cup canned pumpkin (if you feel like using homemade puree, do it!)
1 stick unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup white chocolate chips

Put a rack in the upper third of the oven; preheat to 325°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the pumpkin, butter, and spices (cinnamon through cardamom) and heat until the butter is melted and the mixture is warmed through.  Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

When the pumpkin mixture has cooled to about room temperature, stir in the eggs, sugar, and vanilla.  Pour pumpkin mixture into flour mixture and mix well with a spatula; add cranberries and white chocolate and stir to combine.

Spoon the cookie dough onto prepared baking sheet, using about 2 tablespoonfuls of dough per cookie (about the size of a ping-pong ball).  Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cookies just start to turn golden on the edges.  Let cool on the baking sheets for about five minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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Pasta Carbonara

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Last week Alex was in Atlanta, singing with Skylark. I’ve gotten used to these nearly-monthly trips, and I’ve even found ways to enjoy the extended periods of alone time.  Basically, I use Alex’s absences as opportunities to do things that don’t appeal to him at all; last week, I binge-watched season 6 of Top Chef (you know, the one that aired in 2009, the one that featured Kevin Gillespie, aka the best season ever); I made one dinner that consisted solely of soup and salad, and another that featured the insanely spicy chicken wings from Bon Chon; I finally finished watching Twin Peaks (anyone else who’s seen it, call me– I need to talk it out with someone); and I spent a significant amount of time on the couch, in silence, just reading.  Frankly, the week flew by.

I only got sad one time while Alex was away, and it was the night that he rented a car and drove down to Montgomery to visit his oldest brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.  I haven’t seen those guys since our wedding weekend (almost exactly a year ago), which means that said nephew is a whole year older and probably a totally different baby by now.  I found myself wishing I had access to a teleport device so I could hop over and join them for the evening.

Alex and I used to spend a lot of time at Shane and Tiffany’s house when we were in college.  Anyone who has lived in a dorm can understand that dorm residents frequently need to just get out and spend some time in a normal setting, and we were fortunate enough to have family members nearby with an open-door policy.  And it certainly didn’t hurt that Tiffany had food available nearly every time we showed up.  Chips and guacamole, fresh pancakes, a giant tub of Utz cheez balls– there was always something to munch on.  And if we were ever there for an official dinner, there was a pretty good chance we were eating pasta carbonara.

The appeal of carbonara really isn’t hard to explain: pasta, bacon, cheese, and heavy cream– what more could you possibly want out of dinner?  Throwing in browned onions, sweet green peas, and about a pound of black pepper just sweetens the deal.  Savories the deal.  What?  You know what I mean.

I decided to make carbonara for this week’s first post-Skylark dinner.  The weather’s getting cold in Boston, and it’s getting dark earlier and earlier every day.  It was the kind of day that just begged for comfort food– and I was all too happy to oblige.  Red wine on the side?  Don’t mind if I do.

Carbonara is ridiculously easy to make.  You can cook all the components while you prepare the pasta.  First, you’ll fry a few pieces of bacon in a skillet; when it’s browned and medium-crispy, remove it from the skillet, pour off the fat, and then throw in some chopped onion.  The onion picks up a good bit of color from the remaining bacon bits and the fat that clings to the pan, so you’ll have to go more by fragrance than by look to determine when the onion is properly softened.  Once the onion bits start to turn translucent, toss in a few cloves of minced garlic (don’t put the garlic in at the same time as the onion, though, or it’ll burn).  When the garlic is fragrant, turn off the heat and throw in about a cup of frozen green peas.  You’re not trying to cook the peas– you’re just warming them up so they don’t cool down the pasta when you mix everything together.

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Chop up the bacon and throw it in the skillet, too.  The residual heat from the pan will keep it warm while the pasta finishes cooking.

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When the pasta is done, drain it thoroughly and transfer it back to the pot in which you cooked it.  Pour a mixture of eggs, cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt and pepper–which you’ll also have had time to prepare while the pasta cooks– into the warm pasta while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, enlisting an extra pair of hands if necessary.  About halfway through, stop pouring in the liquid mixture and dump in the vegetables and bacon, then proceed until all the liquid is mixed in.

At this point, I like to put the pot back over medium-low heat for just a minute; since the egg mixture is room temperature at best, it tends to cool down the whole dish, and reheating everything gently makes for a more satisfying dinner.  Just make sure you’re still stirring the pasta constantly while it reheats, otherwise you might end up with some cooked egg bits floating about.

And then, once everything is heated to your desired temperature and the sauce is silky, divvy it into bowls and top with an ungodly amount of fresh ground pepper.  Seriously.  I counted the number of times I twisted the pepper mill, and even after one hundred grinds of pepper into the eggs and cheese– no kidding– I still doused the final bowls with at least an extra twenty grinds.  Is that normal?  Is my pepper mill on the fritz?  Or am I just a pepper belly of the highest degree?

Hey!  You should make carbonara for dinner this week.  Invite a friend over.  Or eat it all for yourself.  Either way, it’ll make your day.

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Pasta Carbonara
adapted from The Pioneer Woman

1 16-oz package penne rigate, or your favorite pasta
3 slices bacon (increase to 5 or six if your bacon is sliced thin)
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 whole eggs
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, plus more
1 cup frozen green peas

Cook pasta according to package directions.

While the pasta is cooking, fry the bacon until moderately crisp. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Pour off the bacon grease, return the pan to the stove over medium-low heat, and add onion. Cook until golden brown; add garlic, reduce heat, and cook for a few minutes more, or until garlic is softened and fragrant.  Turn off heat, and add peas to the warm skillet.

In a bowl, mix together eggs, Parmesan, cream, and salt and pepper until smooth.

When the pasta is done, drain thoroughly and return to the pot. While the pasta is still really hot, slowly drizzle in the egg mixture, stirring the pasta the whole time, and stopping halfway through to add the bacon and vegetables. The sauce will become thick and should coat the pasta.

Serve immediately with generous amounts of fresh ground pepper.

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