Friday, February 27, 2009

The Secret Life of a Broth-o-holic

I confess - I am a broth-o-holic. I can have noodles in broth (and do) at 8 a.m. I swill my broth with the best of them. I would like to say it is always homemade-simmering-30-hour-drop-dead-grandma's broth - but I will happily open a can, cook some noodles - spaghetti, penne, tortellini - whatever is in the house and throw it together. And top all with shredded Parmesan. When it calls to me, I will do this on a summer day when it is 85 degrees out and only 10 a.m. in the morning. My daughter will come downstairs, seeing me sweating with my soup at the table and shake her head in dismay at the mad woman who is supposedly her mother.

My descent into broth-holism started innocently enough. I was a lucky, poverty-stricken student studying in Austria. The school took us on a whirlwind tour of Italy. What's not to like? But by the time we got to Rome and had seen 112 churches and the bones of as many saints, we were eager to have some time on our own. And we did - in Rome.

Being poverty-stricken, (to figure out my age - let it be known I did do Europe on $5/day and never camped outside ... well, there was the one time in the Paris train station over night... but that was inside) ... back to being poor - on our own in Rome there was no restaurant we could afford. We went into the train station - probably because it was free and there was a cheap (really cheap) menu of soups and pastas. I ordered tortellini in brodo.

And I was transported in the train station. Without getting on a train. Nothing in Penn Station in NYC ever tasted like this! (Although they used to have really good bagels.) I would forever be hooked on noodles in broth.

Fast forward 6 years and I am a poor actress (notice the common theme?) in Greenwich Village. I was fond of three trattorias that were in my neighborhood. Locally owned, they had some outstanding Italian food and no one seemed to know about them except for us lucky locals. Their tortellini in brodo with swirls of spinach and arugula was my favorite meal. They knew me and were pleased when I ordered something different. (Signorina, the veal! the pasta! the chicken!) But I was an addict and nothing would do but a quick fix of their soup.

These days, I keep homemade stock in the freezer during the cooler months. If it is 85 degrees out and I have a craving for noodles and broth, I will open a commercial can of broth (if my cravings are not intense I will spend 30 minutes enhancing it with some roasted vegetables), add cooked noodles and top with parmesan. It is now one of my daughter's favorite meals - we manage a vegetable in there. And in the winter, I will use beef broth, pepper it, reduce it, sometimes add wine and swirl a little butter in it and serve the rich broth with ravioli. Which is what I did last night.

And I'm back in a Rome train station which was a really nice place to be.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Simmer, Eat Chocolate, Dance

"Mercury must be in retrograde." My friend Terry would pronounce this after an audition that did not go well or an evening of waitressing that yielded few decent tips. Yesterday afternoon, as we gathered for our February Cover Girl dinner, there were murmurs that indeed the planets had not been aligned properly during the last week. Everyone was coping with significant stresses and the afternoon began quietly.

My sister arrived with the Sunday NY Times and a jar of chocolates. The chocolates were warmly welcomed and devoured. Diane and I began our prep. The menu was to be:

Bon Appetit's February Cover Recipe: Chimichurri steaks with green beans and roasted red potatoes

Appetizers evolved into: chocolates, Asiago cheese, dry salame

Dessert would be: a do-it-yourself-crepe-bar

Sparkling cider was chilling, a Shiraz was uncorked and water bottles and sodas could be found all over the kitchen.

We turned on a Fray CD and began the process of chopping for the chimichurri sauce. Matthew moseyed downstairs to watch a movie. Kirsten and Devon went into the den to become Guitar Heroes. Paul started the taxes. Diane and I chopped. The music was low-key as was the afternoon. When the chopping was done, the beans par-boiled, the potatoes dressed for the oven and the steak was rubbed, we found it was too early to make the crepes and we had a wee bit of time on our hands.

The chimichurra sauce looked good enough to eat now - simply spread on a slice of bread and enjoy. Diane and I were longing for an escape out of the winter doldrums. Coldplay went into the CD player. Viva la Vida came one and the dancing began. We danced as we cut the Asiago cheese and as the salame came out. We dipped into the chocolate jar. I forgot that my planned appetizer was hummus with crackers and vegetables. People starting meandering to the kitchen, taking a look at the "Dancing Schmidt Sisters," grabbing some cheese and chocolate and running for their lives. Even the kitten left. After three go-rounds with the same song, we decided to make crepes. But nobody could properly babysit the quick-cooking crepes with Coldplay singing to us. In went The Little Shop of Horrors CD- a show that evokes grand memories from our NY days.

The pan was heated, the crepe batter came out and we took turns making the crepes as we sang along (loudly and undoubtedly off-key) with the soundtrack. Some crepes were a little browner than usual as we tried to hit a high note but all in all there was only one mangled crepe out of fourteen. We dutifully ate our mistake and continued to sing. Unbeknownst to us, the appetizers had disappeared. We didn't notice the furtive comings and goings in the kitchen. Food was swiped. Nobody dared to come near us!

As the CD neared to an end, the potatoes went into the oven, the beans were doused with cumin seed and garlic; the steaks were seared and put in the oven. The singing quieted down. Kirsten dared to approach us and we told stories of seeing Little Shop of Horrors in preview at the WPA Theatre. A friend of ours was "the plant" and we later went out with half of the cast and the composer and lyricist. It was a magical night. Recalling that evening gave us a lighter move to our steps.

And then the steaks came out, the chimichurri sauce was placed atop and the meal began.

We used t-bones instead of NY strip - because that was in my freezer but other than that, the cover recipe worked its wonders - it nourished our body and it nourished our soul.

For chimichurri steak, you need: (Serves: 6
(from Bon Appetit's Cover Recipe, February 2009)

3 tbs fruity olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, 2 thinly sliced, 2 pressed
1/4 tsp dried crushed red pepper
1 fresh bay leaf, broken in half
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
2 tbs finely chopped pitted Kalamata olives
2 tbs red wine vinegar
1-2 tbs water

2 14-16 oz 2 inch thick, grass-fed NY strip steaks (we used 4 t-bones for 6 servings)
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp coarse kosher salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
black pepper

Heat 2 tbs oil in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add sliced garlic*, red pepper and bay leaf. Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add shallots and saute until just translucent - about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley, olives and vinegar. Add 1 tbs water. Add another tbs if mixture seems too thick. (It wasn't)

*I inadvertently threw in the crushed garlic also. Didn't hurt it all. Adding extra garlic never seems to hurt!

This can be done up to two hours ahead of time. The mixture can sit at room temperature.

Rub steaks with 1 tbs oil and pressed garlic. (Yes, I had to press more garlic.) Sprinkle both sides of the steaks with the paprika, coarse salt and cayenne pepper and a generous amount of black pepper. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to two hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Brush very heavy ovenproof skillet with oil. (Preferably cast iron - which I do not own - so needed to switch pans from stove top to oven). Heat over high heat until almost smoking. Add steaks. Cook until browned (about five minutes). Turn steaks and transfer skillet to oven. Roast until instant-read thermometer registers 115 degrees F (for rare). We cooked a mixture of rare to medium rare.) Let steaks rest five minutes. Thinly slice crosswise, spoon with chimichurri sauce and serve.

The steaks were so tender they could be cut with a butter knife. My husband swooned (and he is not a swooner). Things quieted down as we moved on to the serious business of eating. Happy sounds wafted over the table. A few minutes later, conversation with words began. The wonders of creme fraiche on roasted potatoes was explained to Devon. ("No, it is not yoghurt." "No, it is not sour cream.") Conversation switched from the story of Uncle Phil and the Mafia (no, our family did not partake) to Grandpa Haas's experience with the St. Paul gangsters in the 1930's. Having been at a loss to follow four conversations simultaneously during our Thanksgiving dinner, Devon was pleased that he had learned to listen to multiple conversations at the same time and appropriately interrupt! This was a break-through!
By the time the crepe bar was set-up, Matthew and Kirsten were in happy tears recounting the story of "Mom and the time she said a bad word loudly, outside - when she thought her children were throwing the Christmas tree at her." That tale seems to have surpassed the tale of the "time-Mom-tried-to-serve-the-tiramisu-and-mangled-it-beyond-recognition."
Dinners can provide their own enchantment. In the midst of a Minnesota winter, a cover recipe can be the perfect antiodote to whatever ails you. I have no idea what we will be cooking in March - have not seen the March Tastes of Italia or Bon Appetit. I only know I am looking forward to it.