Chicken and vegetable baked pasta

The great low-FODMAP experiment continues. Despite talking a big game about cooking, I’m actually a pretty big takeout junkie. Now–curse that garlic!–a lot of my favorite restaurant dishes and prepared foods are suddenly off-limits. So, to satisfy my grab-and-go impulse, I’ve been doubling down on freezer meals.

This has been an opportunity to break out of my (tasty, but repetitive) freezer-cooking rut: beans, soups, stews, chili. A couple weeks ago, I started asking around for recipe ideas, and a friend suggested baked pasta. With a new go-to tomato sauce recipe, it didn’t take long to put two and two together. From the fridge, I gathered a mishmash of cooked chicken, carrots, zucchini, bell pepper, dino kale, and provolone cheese. Together with a pound of brown rice pasta and a batch of homemade tomato sauce, these became one of the most delicious freezer meals I’ve ever made.

I love this just the way I made it: tender zucchini, sweet carrot, barely-wilted greens, tangy provolone cheese, and the occasional nugget of chicken. But baked pasta is perfect for cleaning out the fridge, so think of this recipe as a template. You can swap in another kind of cooked meat, or omit it altogether. Use whatever vegetables you like, or whatever’s in the fridge. In place of the provolone, try mozzarella, cheddar, smoked gouda, or a mix of cheeses–sliced or shredded, it’s up to you. Pretty much the only requirements here are pasta, tomato sauce, and a heap of grated Parmesan.

chicken veggie baked pasta

My lunch today–a pan of pasta, saucy and golden brown, baked straight from the freezer

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Pressure cooker tomato sauce

Hello, I’m back! I took another little break from blogging, since life doesn’t seem to slow down these days. In the space of about six months, between the two of us, Sam and I have tackled new health issues, avalanches of work, and some pretty heavy family stuff. Oh, and there’s that wedding we’re planning. (60 days to go. Holy mackerel.)

I may write more about all this at some point–we’re still in the thick of it now. But in the meantime, I have a recipe to share. It combines two things that have recently shaken up how I cook and eat–for better and for worse.

First, the fun one. I have officially become an Instant Pot fanatic. We bought the six-quart model on Black Friday sale, and it’s now a fixture on our kitchen counter. Having an electric pressure cooker has converted me to the religion of the set-it-and-forget-it meal. I can toss a mishmash of ingredients in the Instant Pot, seal it up, and go back about my business. In an hour or so–less if I’m in a hurry, more if I’m not–there’s a piping-hot meal waiting for guests, or a batch of something versatile to portion and freeze.

I love this thing so much. So far I’ve used it for soup, stew, chili, rice, pasta sauce, two or three kinds of broth, and I don’t even know what else. Pressure cookers can safely cook meat even if it’s frozen solid, so I can pull a pack of chicken thighs out of the freezer at 6 PM and be eating them by 7 PM. And for hard-boiled eggs, this machine is basically unbeatable. (My new egg-boiling method, after much experimenting: 1 cup of water, steamer basket, 4 minutes at low pressure, 5 minutes natural release, ice bath. Easiest-peeling, creamiest-yolked eggs I’ve ever had.)

instant pot

Instant Pot, hard at work on my (messy) kitchen counter

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Chocolate sour cream bundt cake

This is my absolute number-one favorite chocolate cake. Hands down. And I say that as someone who usually thinks chocolate cake is a waste of chocolate. Oh, it’s tasty, no doubt, but between the flour and the butter and the sugar and the eggs, it’s often hard to taste the chocolate at all.

This cake is different. It’s a sour cream cake, the softest and plushest kind of cake there is. That means it can support a heaping helping of cocoa powder–amounts that would dry out a lesser cake. (I’ve actually increased the amount of cocoa in this cake since I started making it, and if anything I think the texture is better.) It’s also a hot water cake, which makes the texture even moister and helps draw out flavor, coffee-like, from the cocoa. And instead of a sickly-sweet buttercream frosting, it’s covered with dark chocolate ganache. What’s not to love?

In fact, this cake is so soft that I’ve had trouble with it falling apart if I take it out of the pan too soon. Most bundt cake recipes say you should cool the cake in the pan for exactly 10 minutes–no more, no less–before turning them out. When I do that, the cake slumps into a pile of delicious crumbs. I’ve found it’s best to wait a bit longer, until the sides of the cake pan are warm but not hot to the touch. That’s my cue that the cake has cooled enough to hold together, but not enough to cement itself to the pan.

When my family makes this cake, we use a standard-sized bundt pan and a demure drizzle of ganache over the top. The cake in the picture below was for a friend’s 30th birthday party, so I scaled up the recipe to fill my giant bundt pan and shellacked the entire surface with ganache. Honestly, do as you please–I’ve never seen someone turn up their nose at this cake.

chocolate-sour-cream-bundt-cake

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Smoky tea-braised lentils

In a world of coffee drinkers, Sam and I are tea fanatics. Our cupboards are bursting with tins and boxes, strainers and saucers. We drink black tea in the morning, green tea after dinner, and herbal tea late at night. We even have one of those fancy tea kettles that heats water to different temperatures for different types of tea.

I love cooking with tea–and with one tea in particular–almost as much as drinking it. Lapsang souchong tea is dried over wood fires, giving it a distinctive smoky flavor. Add some leaves or a bag to a pot of soup broth, and you’ve got something deeper and huskier than any non-meat broth I know. My new favorite trick? Cooking black lentils–sometimes called beluga lentils, because they resemble caviar when cooked–in a cauldron of smoky tea, tomatoes, and spices.

The recipe I adapted this from called for simmering everything together at once–lentils, tomatoes, the works. I’ve tried that, and don’t recommend it; the acid in the tomatoes keeps the lentils from softening. Instead, I use the method from my grandmother’s bean and tomato soup. In that recipe, you start simmering the legumes on their own, cook up a saucy tomato mix in a separate pan, then bring everything together towards the end of the cooking time. I added a handful of greens, too, which wilted down and made the whole dish more substantive.

At first taste, you might assume there’s meat in these lentils. It’s a nifty little trick, brought about by the marriage of smoky tea and glutamate-rich tomatoes. You could easily serve this as a standalone vegan meal–I have, and my omnivorous dinner guests loved it. If you eat eggs, these lentils are incredible with a poached or soft-boiled egg on top. And as with so many soups and stews, the flavor gets even better after some time in the fridge or freezer.

smoky tea lentils

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Bison, sausage and ricotta meatloaf

Meet the new love of our lives:

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His name is Behemoth, and he’s just shy of a year old. We adopted him from a local shelter in November. It didn’t take long for him to wrap both Sam and me around his glossy black paw. He’s sweet-natured, outgoing, and lovable as hell.

I’d walked into the shelter expecting to adopt an older cat, so bringing home a teenager was an adjustment. As far as young cats go, this guy’s pretty easygoing–he loves being around people and tends to take things in stride. But in many ways, he’s still a kitten. He has no chill. When he’s not fast asleep, he’s constantly on the move, sniffing this and climbing that and chewing on most anything within reach. And he is desperately curious about human food.

Whenever we sit down for a meal, Behemoth is there, lurking on the windowsill or the sideboard, waiting for his chance to sneak onto the table and steal a taste. There’s a curio shelf in one corner of the dining room, and he likes to climb up there and stare piercingly at us while we eat, like a fuzzy gargoyle:

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He’s also just brazen enough to wait until our backs are turned. So far, we’ve caught him swiping bites of deviled eggs, cheesecake, and chow mein. And the other night, when I made meatloaf, he was falling all over himself to try and get a morsel. Not that I blame him–it was delicious, and looked not entirely unlike cat food. How could we blame him?

Behemoth did not get his share of meatloaf. We, however, inhaled it. I love my meatloaf as moist as possible, and this recipe delivers in spades. I used a combination of ultra-lean ground bison for bulk, and fatty pork sausage for richness and seasoning. Then I scooped in the last of a tub of quark–a fermented ricotta-like cheese–that we had in the fridge. The cheese melts right into the meat, making a loaf that’s oh-so-plush and juicy. Ricotta would do the job just as well, and I’ve written the recipe to reflect this.

A note on glaze: I keep seeing recipe posts and videos making snide comments about ketchup-glazed meatloaf. I don’t know who decided this was uncool–it’s probably my favorite part of a classic meatloaf. I included a simple ketchup-mustard-brown sugar glaze in this recipe, which you can tweak to your liking. And if you prefer an un-glazed loaf, feel free to skip the glaze. This meatloaf is plenty flavorful without it.

bison sausage ricotta meatloaf

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Spiced lentil turnovers

It’s phyllo central over here. Something about that golden, flaky crackle-crunch is really hitting the spot right now. And if I feel myself burning out on layered pies, there’s always the trusty triangle.

This particular recipe was my contribution to an Ethiopian-food potluck. It’s a riff on lentil sambusas, one of my favorite things to order at an Ethiopian restaurant. Picture an Indian samosa if that’s more familiar, but smaller and lighter, with a filling of gently spiced lentils. I love a good samosa, but the combination of pastry and potato always makes me feel like I’ve eaten a brick. Not so with sambusas–the best ones I’ve had are earthy but delicate, with a thin-and-crisp shell.

Normally, sambusas in restaurants are deep-fried. But I hate the mess and hassle of deep-frying, so I decided to bake my sambusas instead. As always, the challenge when turning a deep-fried food into a baked one is texture–it’s hard to really mimic that great golden crunch. Of everything I’ve tried, phyllo’s flaky crispness gets the closest.

I started with the classic triangle instructions on the back of the phyllo box, and added a sambusa-inspired filling of lentils and spiced, sauteed onions. You could make the filling all in one pot, but I decided to cook the lentils on their own and then fold in the spiced onion mix to keep the textures and flavors distinct. I used ordinary, cheap green lentils, but beluga or Puy lentils would be lovely since they keep their shape when cooked. Make sure to use plenty of butter or oil–it’s what gives these little pastries their color and crunch.

lentil-sambusas

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Clam miso soup over rice

So far, 2017 is a soup kind of year. It’s been a wet and chilly winter, the kind of Northern California winter I remember from my childhood, before the super-drought set in. We’ve had a couple nasty colds pass through our home, and they’ve seemed even more vicious than usual for this time of year.

And of course, every time I read the news or check social media, there’s something new to break my heart. I’ve been struggling to keep my head above the water of despair and depression, and it feels like every new headline is pushing me back under. I’m doing what I can to fight back, with my body and my wallet, but it never feels like enough.

So I’ve been gravitating to soup. Easy, comforting, nourishing soup. I may not know much in life right now, but I know how to make a pot of something warm and delicious. And this particular soup is a good one: miso soup with fresh clams and greens, ladled over rice. It’s light and savory, briny from the clams, and substantial enough to make you feel like you’re doing something good for yourself.

Looking at the recipe, I think I’ve made this sound more complicated than it actually is. Basically, you steam open some clams in plenty of water–maybe with a bit of kombu for added flavor–and then use the cooking liquid to wilt greens and dissolve miso. Make your rice fresh, or use leftovers if you’ve got them. Combine everything in a bowl, and there’s your meal. This is a nice, relatively inexpensive way to treat yourself to seafood, with the comfort and quiet of a big bowl of broth.

clam-miso-soup

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