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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Spaghetti and Meatballs and Still a Cool Kitchen

Now that the heat is upon us even in the upper Midwest, it's time to stop using our ovens. Some of us are not grillers, so we need to look for other ways to prepare some favorite foods without heating up the kitchen.

One family favorite even in summer is spaghetti and "meatballs," with mandatory sides of tossed salad and garlic bread. Making the sauce from scratch, boiling a huge pot of water for the pasta, and heating the garlic bread in the oven could result in either a huge drain on the air conditioner or a very uncomfortable kitchen--or both. Here are a few things that can cut the heat and still make this a dish to savor year round. (One advantage of serving this to little ones in the summer is that the meal can be served on the deck where a plastic tablecloth and hose-able floor make the inevitable tomato sauce stains a snap to clean up.)

First, the sauce.

I don't have enough tomatoes in my garden to can or freeze my own spaghetti sauce, but I long ago learned that the most economical brands of spaghetti sauce can be given a "home-cooked" flavor very easily.

Spaghetti Sauce in a Jiffy

1 can or jar (about 26 to 28 oz) spaghetti sauce--tomato based, no alfredo style; I like the "garden" variety of most brands
1/2 c chopped onion
canola oil
1/4 to 1/2 c chopped green or red bell pepper (optional)
1/3 to 1/2 c grated carrot (optional)
garlic powder or minced garlic to taste
mixed dried herbs--I use oregano, basil, and rosemary, with fennel seeds sometimes added as well

Saute the onion, carrot, and bell pepper in the oil, stirring occasionally, until the onions are just starting to turn golden. Add the minced garlic or garlic powder near the end of this sauteeing step. Stir in the spaghetti sauce and seasonings to taste. Continue to cook just until the sauce is heated through.

Next, the spaghetti.

Two years ago, a New York Times article confirmed what I have known for years--you really don't have to heat all that water to cook your pasta! Whether it is spaghetti or macaroni or whatever, you can start with far less water and end up with perfectly cooked pasta with a lot less heat in the kitchen. Don't believe me? Here are a couple of links to back me up:

...and the NY Times article that started more people on to this method:

As Dr. McGee notes, the overall energy savings if we all started using less water to cook our pasta would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year. And while that is a worthy aim in itself, even better right now is the thought of just a little cooler kitchen.

My approach has been to heat just enough water to barely cover the pasta when it will be cooked (which means you may need to experiment a little, using a little less water each time until you get to an optimal, lower level). For spaghetti and fettucine, I use my 12 inch skillet or Dutch oven, because the pasta can just lay across as little as an inch of boiling water. And yes, I do start with the water at a boil rather than putting the pasta into cold water. A little stirring right when the spaghetti is added and then it should be as effortless to cook as when you have that huge vat of boiling water to cope with in the older method.

Give it a try and I'll bet you won't go back to the old way even in the winter when you don't mind heating up the kitchen.

And the meatballs...

Those "meatballs" with the quotation marks? That's because these little critters are vegetarian, but it has been hard to come up with a fitting name. Vegetarian Meatballs is an oxymoron, but that's what we still call them. This recipe came from one of my daughters-in-law and it is a great thing to bake a batch when you don't mind heating up the stove and then freeze for a whole lot of quick meals--this is a really big batch.

Vegetarian "Meatballs"

canola oil
1 c finely minced onion--if these are not cut small enough, it makes the mixture harder to form into balls
2 c Colby or mild Cheddar cheese, grated

2 vegetarian bouillon cubes or packages of vegetable broth seasoning
3/4 c ground pecans (see NOTE)
2 c dry bread crumbs
garlic powder or finely minced garlic to taste--I like about a teaspoon of garlic powder or 3 to 4 large cloves
5 large or extra large eggs (may need 6 if the eggs are a little on the small side)

1. Saute the onions and garlic in a small amount of oil, cooking until they are golden brown.
2. Stir in the remaining ingredients. If the mixture is a little on the dry side, add the sixth egg.
3. Shape the mixture into small balls. I use a round measuring spoon, either the teaspoon or tablespoon size depending on your preference. (Note the plastic gloves. If you are not comfortable using your hands, the easiest of all ways to form these, you may find using the gloves a lot more acceptable.)

4. Spread the balls on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until well browned and a little bubbly around the edges. This will take 12 to 18 minutes, depending on the size of the balls. If you prefer, you can also brown the balls in a little oil on the stove top, but the fat content is high enough that I prefer the oven method; besides, it takes a lot less attention!

These can be frozen prior to or after baking--with either approach, just spread the balls on a baking sheet and freeze until solid. Then place in a tightly sealed freezer bag, removing as many as needed for your next batch of spaghetti.

I usually get at least 6 dozen balls out of this recipe.

NOTE: Our local Fleet Farm store sells ground pecans, usually at a lower price than the larger pieces, and this makes a very convenient addition to these balls. However, if you don't have the ground nuts available, just process pecan pieces until quite finely ground (but not to the stage of "pecan butter!"). While pecans are quite pricey these days, the small amount needed will still make this recipe less expensive than meatballs made with beef or turkey. If necessary, you could substitute walnuts and would probably have an equally tasty result.

Finally, the bread

How many kids really like spaghetti and meatballs because the dish is usually served with toasty garlic bread? And we all know that the best kind is that crusty loaf all slathered with the garlic spread, wrapped in foil and baked in the oven until the inside is almost soggy from the filling and the outside is chewy and just a bit crusty. So how to duplicate that without a hot oven?

To be honest, you probably won't come up with an exact match, but you can come close. First of all, this is the time to buy a fresh loaf of crusty French bread--the kind now carrying the name baguette in even the most suburban of chain supermarkets. Then, if you have a gas stove (may work with a little testing on an electric range but I think it would be quite a bit harder), try the first method below. No gas burners or no non-nonstick pans? Give the microwave a chance. That will be farther from the oven-baked kind, but it still will be a wonderful side. However you prepare the bread, keep the spread in the refrigerator for a quick batch of garlic bread--or just spread it on a slice of bread hot out of the toaster; the flavor will be the same, even if the texture isn't quite the way you remember your best garlic bread.

All Purpose Garlic Spread

1/2 c butter
1/2 c olive oil (or more, to taste)
1 t garlic powder or to taste
1/4 to 1/2 t salt, to taste

Cut the butter into chunks in a 2 cup glass measure. Place in the microwave at low power for about 15 to 30 seconds, just enough to soften well. Add in olive oil to reach the one cup line--or more if you prefer to have the olive oil more predominant in flavor. Stir in the garlic powder and salt and mix well. If using immediately, use a pastry brush to spread on the bread. When chilled, this has a great spreading consistency and it stores in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, if you haven't found lots of uses for it before then. (Makes a great topping on vegetables, works well for sauteeing a few onions, etc.)

Stove-top Grilled Garlic Bread

Use only a cast iron or heavy steel or anodized aluminum pan without nonstick coating for this method.

Cut and spread a loaf of chewy French or artisan bread as you would prepare it for baking. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil.
Meanwhile, place the pan on medium high and heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until it is very hot. Lay the tightly wrapped bread in the pan, add a few drops of water OR a bit of oil to the pan, and cover tightly. Lower the flame a little but keep the pan quite hot. Allow to heat for about 5 to 7 minutes and test for warmth by simply putting your hand on the top of the foil package. If it is very warm to hot to touch, turn it over and heat another minute or so.

Microwaved Garlic Bread

Oil a rectangular cake pan and place in the microwave with a cup measure filled with water. Heat for a minute or two and then leave the pan in place to continue warming.

Meanwhile, prepare the garlic bread as usual. Place in the hot glass pan, cover loosely with waxed paper or a microwave lid with lots of holes for steam to escape. Heat for about 1 to 3 minutes, depending on the amount of bread and your oven's power.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Surprising Pesto

Some friends have kindly given me access to their share of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) while they are on vacation, so I received a box overflowing with lettuce, radishes, and spinach this week. The lettuce will make wonderful salads, but the amount of radish greens overwhelmed the radishes themselves. This sent me on a quest for more info on the edibility of these greens and possible ways to prepare them. Net result? A surprisingly great pesto and a barely so-so soup. I'll continue to tweak the latter but will include my take on the pesto here. Note that the pesto seems intensely garlicky; perhaps the spiciness of the greens boosts the garlic flavor. Keep that in mind as you choose the size of garlic clove to include.

If you have radishes fresh and ready from your garden, give this a try. All the info on radish greens emphasizes the very temporary nature of these tender leaves and the need to use them quickly from the garden. I tasted my supply first before even attempting any recipes. Though there are many references to the bitterness of these greens, I found none of that at all, just a light and pleasant spiciness--not surprising given the spicy flavor of the roots.

Radish Greens Pesto

2 oz (about 2 packed cups) well washed radish leaves, stems removed
1 oz grated Parmesan
1 oz whole almonds
1 large clove garlic, cut in two or three pieces
1 T olive oil, or more as needed
1/2 t salt
1/4 t Cajun seasoning

Place all ingredients except salt and cajun seasoning in a processor and blend until smooth. Drizzle in a little more oil if the mixture is too dry. Taste and season accordingly.

This had a slightly crunchy texture because I just put whole almonds in with the remaining ingredients, so they were not completely blended. If you prefer a smoother texture, just blend these lightly first, or use slivered almonds instead of the whole ones.

If you look closely at the picture below, you will see that the leaves have a few of the holes left by flea beetles. I cut out any obviously brown spots but did not worry about including the still green leaves infested with these little bites.

Frugal: Since most of us routinely throw the greens away when we prepare radishes, that part of this recipe could be considered virtually free. This year, almonds are among the least expensive nuts, and the parmesan was plain old store brand grated.

Fast: Everything goes into the blender at once, and there are no other dishes to wash. If you like pesto on pasta, this would take less time to make than waiting for the water to boil.

Fit: Nutrition information on radish leaves was a little light, but several sites included this information:
Radishes, like other cruciferous vegetables, are high in vitamin C, which is the primary cancer-preventing antioxidant agent. One cup of the root supplies twenty-five percent of the daily recommended amount. Radish greens have six times the amount of vitamin C found in the root, as well as a significant amount of calcium, iron, and thiamine. These vegetables are also good sources of folic acid, potassium, and the trace mineral molybdenum. Molybdenum is thought to be involved in nervous system development, kidney function, and energy production at the cellular level.
Fun: This recipe was tested and approved by a not-real-fond-of-greens granddaughter. She tasted and then continued to "test" through several tablespoons of the pesto on plain old saltines, the only thing I had available for snacking when she stopped by.

Now for a little more work on developing a soup with radish greens that is worth the effort.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dhal Stuffed Peppers

As the price of food continues to rise, I spent a little time looking over the dried peas and beans selection at a local market. Even the most expensive of these will still provide a lot of economical meals, but I was going for really cheap, and I found the two lowest price products were whole dried peas, with yellow split peas only a few pennies more. I didn't have time to cook the whole peas for dinner (they have to soak an extended time, just like dried beans), but the split peas would be quick, if I could just come up with a flavorful meal with what I had in the cupboard.

I still had some green peppers in the refrigerator from a super special a few weeks ago, so it was time to stuff some peppers. Since yellow split peas are a common ingredient of many of the dhals cooked in India, I decided to go in that direction with the seasonings.

Note the microwave preparation of the peppers. This cuts the time a great deal and keeps more of the fresh flavor of the vegetable. These would be great with yellow or red peppers in place of the green ones--or a mixture of all the colors for some real color appeal.

Dhal Stuffed Peppers

1 c chopped onion (one medium)
1 to 2 c grated carrot (one to two medium)
1 T canola oil
1 c yellow split peas, washed and rinsed (8 oz)
3 c water (may need a bit more as the peas cook)
2 vegetable or chicken bouillon cubes
1 to 2 t garlic powder
2 t curry powder, or to taste
1/2 t coriander (optional)
1/2 t cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 t cumin
2 large green peppers, cut in half lengthwise

1. Wash and rinse the split peas and cover with water. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Total cooking time will be about 30 minutes. The peas should be very soft when done.

2. Saute the onions and grated carrots in the oil, cooking slowly until the onions are just starting to brown. Set aside.

3. When the peas are just about as soft as you want, stir the bouillon cubes and other seasonings into the peas and stir well. Continue cooking until the peas are soft.

4. When the peas are done, puree in a food processor or blender until smooth. Stir this mixture into the onions and carrots and mix well. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

5. Meanwhile, cut the peppers, remove all seeds and white inner sections. Place in a glass casserole dish (a 9 inch square baking pan works well) that has been sprayed with nonstick coating. Cover lightly and microwave for about 3 minutes, until they are just barely beginning to soften.

6. Distribute the split pea mixture among the peppers, packing it in well. You may have more filling than you need. Either fill a couple of additional peppers or save the puree for serving with pita at another meal.

7. Cover the dish lightly and return to the microwave for another two to three minutes, until the peppers are piping hot.

8. Serve topped with chopped raw onion and cilantro if desired. Serves 4.

This is a vegan dish if vegetable bouillon cubes are used.

Frugal: The peppers were on sale for 33 cents each, the split peas cost 79 cents for a pound, and the onions had also been purchased for 33 cents a pound. This entire dish easily cost less than $2 for four servings and there is likely to be enough extra filling for at least one or two pitas for tomorrow's lunches. Those gardeners who are more successful than I might remember this if you have a bumper crop of peppers this year.

(You might want to try this--with some bell or hot peppers added with the onions--to stuff overly abundant zucchini as well.)

Fast: All of the preparation can be completed while the peas are cooking, so it would take little more than 45 minutes to have this done, start to finished. Finish with whatever fresh fruit is in season for a quick dessert course, with or without some yogurt to add dairy if you are so inclined.

Fit: It's hard to get healthier than a dish with all these vegetables and a low-fat protein source.

Fun: If your family likes Indian food, this would be a quick way to include these favorite seasonings in a quick weeknight meal. And the colors in this meal really brighten the table.