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Pork.

That’s a word that inspires little in me. Well maybe that’s not quite true. It does illicit a certain sound and body language. Something close to “huh” or “meh” and a shrug of the shoulders. Like when someone asks what you want for dinner and you have no idea. Or you’re so hungry, it just doesn’t even matter anymore. (When that happens, just feed me chicken and salad. I’ll be back to my sparkly self in no time.)

Sure, bacon is pretty good. At breakfast, mixed into (or on top of) potatoes, crumbled on top of cream of potato soup with cheese and sour cream.

I never really thought much about pork though. That other white meat. We didn’t eat much of it in my house when I was growing up, so I guess it never really was on my radar. We were chicken people. Chicken and steak. And, well, lots of frozen Banquet meals and hot dogs. And ramen. I didn’t come from a gourmet cooking household. I came from a single-mom household of “Oh god, we have to find something for dinner.”

But pork is everywhere these days. Why? It’s cheap — and as I recently have realized, it’s delicious. How did this happen? Well, you see I have this friend. And in addition to being my bestest friend, he’s a chef. (I know!! Score, right!?) And he just happens to love pork. So I decided that I had to give it a chance. Maybe when he comes for dinner, if he comes for dinner, I will make him pork. (I don’t think he reads this.)

So anyway, I bought some pork chops. And I unwrapped them and put them on the counter. And I stared at them.

What would I do with them!? Well, first of all I seasoned them, of course. Even a pork novice like me knows that.

Then, I read a few recipes, gathered some ingredients and got out the skillet.

Then… well, then I poured myself a glass of wine.

So here’s what I decided. Pan fried pork chops with a white wine mustard sauce. Thank you Mark Bittman for being so simple. I love that. Delicious doesn’t mean fancy. I used his sear-and-simmer technique.

Heat some oil in the skillet. When it’s hot, sear the seasoned chops on both sides, about 2 minutes each side.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add two of my favorite things, (white) wine and garlic.

Add some stock or broth. (Bittman hates canned or boxed broth, but sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do…) Then turn the heat down and cover. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes until the chops are cooked through. Don’t overcook them! They’ll get dry! No one wants dry pork chops.

Put the chops on plate. Admire them. Dear lord, they’re beautiful. Hello, my lovelies.

Then when you can pry your eyes away from those beautifully seared pork chops, put your attention back to that skillet and finish the sauce by adding a little more stock and reducing.

Then add some butter, lemon juice,  some Dijon mustard, some capers and a sprinkle of Worcestershire.

Stir to combine it all. make sure all the mustard incorporates. See it in the pan here? Stir stir stir to make sure it all comes together.

Then plate your chop, sauce it and serve with whatever you want to serve it with. I chose a baked potato (with grated cheddar and sour cream) and some sauteed green beans sprinkled with salt, pepper and parm. Then, my friends? Enjoy that other white meat! I know I did. I’m a pork convert!

Pork Chops with Mustard Sauce

  • 2 pork chops, about 1 inch thick
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1  tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • A dash of Worcestershire sauce

Sprinkle the chops with salt and pepper. Put a large skillet over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the olive oil, as soon as the first wisps of smoke rise from the oil, add the chops and turn the heat to high. Brown the chops on both sides, moving them around so they develop good color all over, no longer than 4 minutes total and preferably less.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the wine and the garlic and cook, turning the chops once or twice until the wine is all but evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add the stock, turn the heat down to low, cover and cook 10 to 15 minutes, turning the chops once or twice until the chops are tender, but not dry. When done, they will be firm to the touch, their juices will run just slightly pink and when you cut into them (which you should do if you’re at all unsure of their doneness), the color will be rosy at first glance but then turn pale.

Transfer the chops to a platter. If the pan juices are very thin, cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan until the liquid is reduced slightly. If they are scarce (unlikely), add another 1/2 cup stock or water; cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is reduced slightly. Then stir in the butter over medium heat; add the lemon juice, mustard capers and Worcestershire. Pour over the chops and serve.

— From Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.”

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Presto pesto

Somewhere around mid-June or early July, something happens to me. It’s kind of like the old man in the doughnut commercial, waking up all bleary eyed, muttering, “It’s time to make the doughnuts.” He puts on his slippers and shuffles off to make the doughnuts.

I’ve never made doughnuts. This is not about the doughnuts. (Hmm. Doughnuts.) No, my internal voice whispers, “Psst! Hey! It’s time to make the pesto!”  And who am I to argue with that? So I put on my flip flops and shuffle off to the farmers market, all the way to the back (why are the best things always in the back?) and grab a huge bouquet of basil.

Then I get a hunk of parmigiano reggiano and some pine nuts, break off some garlic cloves from a bulb, grab the salt and olive oil from the pantry and drag out the food processor.

First, you have to deal with the basil, of course. I’ve found the easiest way to get the leaves off the stems is to use my thumb and  index finger to pluck them off. I’ve used scissors, too, but hands seem to be the best tool. Put all the leaves into the salad spinner basket, wash and spin dry.

Then add the garlic and pine nuts to the food processor. Um… make sure the blade is in there before you start adding things. (Who does that? Nah. Not me. Cough cough.)

Put the lid on and process till it makes a paste. Then start adding the basil leaves, a handful or so at a time.

Keep adding the basil, stopping to scraper down the sides of the bowl, until you’ve used all the leaves.

When you’ve added all the basil, you should have a bowl full of thick, bright green paste. If you taste it right now, you’ll taste garlic and basil. And if you know anything about pesto, your taste buds will be screaming for cheese and salt. And olive oil. But in this early form, it’ll taste bright and a little grassy with a bit of bite from the raw garlic and some nutty creaminess from the pine nuts.

Gorgeous, right? Just wait. Now it’s time to add the cheeeeese. Everything is better with cheese. Except fish. Don’t put cheese on my fish.

I shredded the parm myself. I suggest you do, too. When you buy cheese in a block and shred it as you need it, it stays fresh longer and it just tastes better. But I have used preshredded, or even grated in a pinch. It’s not wrong. I just figure if I’m going to all this trouble, I might as well go all the way.

Now it looks almost ready. Taste it. The cheese will add some nuttiness, saltiness and a little more texture.

It’s time for salt, pepper and olive oil. Add the salt and taste it to see if you need more. Then put on the lid and start adding the olive oil. One of the recipes I used called for a cup or a cup and a half of olive oil. I scoffed. Surely it wouldn’t take that much. Now I didn’t exactly measure it as I added the oil, but I can guess that I did add about a cup and a half. It just depends on how thick or loose you want the sauce.

I like pesto to be shiny and a little loose. After you put it in the bowl, add some more olive oil on the top to keep the basil happy. It’ll prevent the green from turning dark.

So great. We made pesto. Now. What the heck do you do with it? Lots of things!

Here are five things to start you off:

1.  Use it as a sandwich spread. For an amazing grilled sandwich, start with some salted Irish butter and two slices of whole-wheat bread. Melt the butter in a pan. Then rub the bread slices around in the butter on the outside. Put them butter-side-down on a cutting board. Smear both pieces with pesto then place slices of mozzarella cheese on the bottom slice. Add tomato slices. Top with another layer of mozzarella. Place the other slice of bread on top and add it to the pan and grill until the cheese is melted and the bread is brown on both sides. The salt in the Irish butter gives the bread a little flavor and the fat helps the bread grill and get a fantastic crispness.

2. Use it as a pasta sauce. Yes, that’s the obvious answer. But that doesn’t make it any less delicious. I like to caramelize some onions and add that to the pasta, then add the pesto. Then top with tomato and bread crumbs.

3. Toss it with shrimp. Cook the shrimp however you’d like, then just toss them with some of the pesto sauce. Serve over pasta if you wish, or rice. Or just on its own with some crusty bread. I’d probably add some tomato, maybe some corn kernels, too. OK, I’m officially hungry. You could also use it on salmon.

4. Swirl it into soup. I’ll eat soup any time of year. Even if you’re making gazpacho, some pesto drizzled on the top would add another dimension and some brightness. If you’re making the grilled mozzarella and tomato sandwich, use it as a dipper for tomato soup. Or spread the pesto on slices of French bread and bake it, like I did here for the Corncob Veggie Soup.

5. Stir it into vegetables. Asparagus tossed with pesto? Sounds like a winner to me. Just sprinkle it with a little extra parm and call it dinner. Or, and I’m sure I’ll talk about this again later, my great aunt had a garden and used to bring over a huge pot of green beans and little red potatoes, seasoned with a ham bone or some fatback (sounds gross but really adds a lot of flavor). So simple, but one of my favorite things in the world. With green beans in season right now, I’m going to have to make this soon. Now I don’t want to mess with my roots too much, because a bowl of green beans and red potatoes with some salt and a pat of butter on top? Perfect. But if I’m feeling creative, I might toss in a little pesto. Not into the whole pot, just into my dish. Also try it stirred into some roasted potatoes.

Bonus: Use it in place of tomato sauce when making a pizza.

I always have a stash of pesto in my freezer, but I can be very conservative about using it because I don’t want to run out before I get to make more. Yes, you can buy it at the store. No, it’s not the same, but it could do in a pinch. If you do have to buy it, get a refrigerated version instead of a jarred one. The chilled one will be fresher and have fewer preservatives. But if you’re game, it’s easy to make.

No, you say? Well. I have one more idea then. How about deconstructed pesto pasta? Cook some linguine, then add minced garlic, olive oil, parm cheese, thin strips of basil, salt and sprinkle in some pine nuts. You’ll get the same flavors. And no food processor necessary.

Classic Pesto

  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1 bunch basil, leaves stripped, washed and dried
  • 1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • up to 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Add the garlic and pine nuts to a food processor and process till smooth. Add the basil leaves a handful at a time, processing till smooth and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the parm and process till incorporated. Add the salt and pepper and process. Taste along the way to adjust the seasonings.

With the processor running, use the tube to gradually pour in the oil until you get your desired consistency. Use at least a cup, but you might want to stop before you get to a cup and a half depending on how loose or dense you prefer your pesto.

Cover and store in fridge. Or freeze into cubes, then put the cubes into snack baggies, then add the snack baggies to a quart-sized freezer bag for long-term freezer storage.

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Bring out the vodka

Sometimes I’m a lazy cook. I watch all these cooking shows where professional chefs stand at the stove and watch pots like it’s their job. They do that because it IS their job. I love being in the kitchen, but sometimes even I don’t want to spend two hours making a meal. That tends to equal a lot of dirty dishes, even when you clean up along the way.

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I like her concept — use few ingredients, but very good quality ones. I also like her because she came to the food industry later in life. She worked for the government, then bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons on kind of a whim. She had no experience in the food industry, but went on to make it her own. I respect that. I hope that could be me someday.

Yes, this is leading somewhere. Let me cut to the chase: I got this recipe for vodka sauce from Ina Garten’s show. Actually, to be fancy and correct, it’s called Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola and it’s served at Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton. I will probably never have it from there. One, because it’s in East Hampton. And two, because it’s a $22 pasta dish and I made it at home for significantly less. A box of pasta on sale? One dollar for eight servings. Now I’m not going to do all the math. I’m a word person after all. But even word people know that $22 for a plate of pasta is just too much. I’m not saying it’s not a good dish. But I can make it at home for about the same cost — or less — for eight servings, not one.

It’s easy, but takes a while to cook in the oven. You just throw some onions and garlic in a Dutch oven (I like to say throw, but I don’t actually throw it. It’s lovingly tossed at best.) with some olive oil.

Let it cook for a bit to soften, add some crushed red pepper flakes and some dried oregano. Stir and let it combine. Then, add a cup of vodka. (One for you, dear sauce. Then one for me. Cheers!)

Let it reduce by half.

This bring us to the San Marzano tomatoes. I used to buy these. I can’t figure out what “brand” they are. But they’re about $4 a can and you’ll find them in the Italian section of your supermarket. The ones in that link are $6. Here’s a secret I recently found. Some supermarket private labels have them too. And guess what? They cost less. Go figure. I got them at Kroger for $1.89 a can. These are with the other canned tomatoes and not in the Italian section. The original recipe doesn’t call for basil. But leave it.

Drain two cans of these tomatoes. (These are great for simple tomato sauce for pizza and pasta. Crush them into a pot, add some olive oil and salt and simmer for 20 minutes. Viola. That’s not even a recipe. And there’s so much more flavor than you get from a jarred sauce. I always keep at least one or two cans of these tomatoes in my pantry.)

These tomatoes also come in crushed form. Don’t buy the crushed ones. The whole tomatoes are the best quality ones. The imperfect ones are crushed and canned, labeled as (you guessed it), crushed. So crush them yourself. It’s fun. Just make sure to wear an apron or at least a shirt you won’t mind having squirts of tomato juice on. And if you pretend that you’re crushing someone’s head as you crush the tomatoes into the pot? Well, that’s your business. I feel like I’ve said that before. But it can’t be said too much.

Add 2 teaspoons of salt. And a pinch of pepper. I know it sounds like a lot of salt. But trust me. Add it. You will not be sorry. Salt gets a bad rap because of all the processed crap we eat. But you need the salt when you’re cooking. Experiment. Just the addition of the right amount of salt can make something ordinary taste so much better. I don’t mean dump salt over all your food after it’s cooked. No, no, no. It’s most important as you go.

Anyway, stir in the salt and pepper.

Put the lid on the Dutch oven and put it into the oven for an hour and a half. Yes, it’s a long wait for dinner. But I’m pretty much in love with anything that takes a few ingredients and just cooks by itself in the oven for a while. And BONUS… it makes your house smell delicious and tastes amazing. Like it took much more effort than it did. Plus it’s hands-off time. Which I completely adore. I can clean up, check Facebook, send a few texts, watch something on TV. Whatever you want. And all while the oven does the work.

And when you pull that pot out of then oven? Well, sometimes even word people can be rendered speechless. Especially when knocked almost breathless with a bite of food. And one that you made yourself. It’s very hard to impress myself. This sauce impresses the hell out of me.

See those “burned” bits around the edges? You want that to happen. It gives the sauce a smoky character. (That one in the middle is a basil leaf.)

So if you don’t want to have this for dinner, you could stop here and store the sauce till the next day or so. But if you have a few more minutes, let the sauce cool while you cook some pasta. I used penne this time, but I like to use rigatoni with this sauce.

When the sauce has cooled some, proceed to the blender. Also, go ahead and give it a taste. The roasted goodness of those tomatoes, onions will make your taste buds dance. Then the heat from the crushed red pepper will make your tongue buzz just a little bit.

Blend it till smooth and creamy, then return it to the pot.

Reheat the sauce, adding a cup of cream — heavy cream if you have it, but half and half will work too — and some dried oregano. Stir it and add half a cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

You’re now seconds from greatness. Stir in that cheese. Now, depending on how many servings you’re making, you can toss the pasta into the sauce or toss the sauce into the pasta. I was only doing a couple of servings, but I put the pasta into the sauce anyway. Next time, I’d do the opposite so the dish wouldn’t be quite so saucy. Learn from  your mistakes, right? This was a mistake I can definitely live with.

Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola

Adapted (just a little) from The Barefoot Contessa and Nick and Toni’s in the Hamptons.

  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 pound penne pasta
  • 4 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 1 cup heavy cream or half and half)
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 375.

Heat the olive oil in a large oven proof saute pan over medium heat, add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 minute more. Add the vodka and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half.

Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a sieve and crush them into the pan with your hands. Add 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. Drain and set aside.

Place the tomato mixture in a blender and puree in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency. Return to the pan.

Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons fresh oregano and enough heavy cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the pasta into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan and a sprinkle of fresh oregano on each plate.

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