Main Dishes


Last month, Michael Ruhlman challenged food bloggers to join him in thinking about why we cook. His post has received over 200 comments and has inspired many blog posts in response. Here is mine.

Why I Cook

I cook because I love to eat. At the heart of all my reasons, my cooking is primarily an extension of my deep love of food. Eating involves my senses - the sight of the food, its aroma, its heft in my hand and texture in my mouth, the sounds it made as it was prepared - all of this before it even reaches the deep ocean of the experience of taste. Cooking literally feeds my joyful affection for food.


I cook because I like to work with my hands. I relish relating to the world kinesthetically; when I cook, I manipulate ingredients with my hands until they become something else, something wonderful. Everything I create a work is cerebral, words on a page.  Cooking lets me make something I can touch and feel and experience more fully.

I cook because I need a creative outlet. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t created things. Drawing, painting, dancing, sewing, knitting, acting, writing, building, quilting, beading, sculpting…it has always been something. As I have noted here many times, I often work long hours. This leaves me with little time for hobbies, especially during the week. Since we have to eat, I have always felt like cooking dinner each night kills two birds with one stone. I get to spend time doing something I love, and it happens to fill our bellies at the end. Win-win.


I cook because there are endless lessons to learn and skills to master. In some ways, the world of cooking presents an impossibly steep mountain that reaches into the heavens. But I set out for a climb anyway, knowing I won’t ever reach the summit. I teach myself new techniques and concepts along the way, and every success pays dividends.

I cook as a way to relate to people. Food is a way to show love, affection, friendship, kindness. I feel like I can express my support for those close to me so much more eloquently through a well-timed chocolate babka than I can with words. When I cook for others, the food speaks for me. It tells them that they are worth my time, worth the effort.


I cook because it fascinates me. Cooking is the perfect storm of science, art, and magic. There is so much to know about the physical and chemical properties of my ingredients; the more I learn, the more enthralled I become. This was what first attracted me to baking (well, that and the wonder of frosting). Combine a whole lot of nothing - flour, water, yeast, salt - and end up with a crusty loaf of bread, one very special something. Add the hearty beauty of roasted garlic and fresh herbs, and that simple bread becomes something unforgettable, craveable. Cube it, toss with tomatoes and cheese, douse with oil and vinegar and a beautiful panzanella jumps out. There are endless combinations and variations on limitless themes, each more delicious than the last. When I step into my kitchen and begin to cook, I feel as though I’m trying to throw my arms around a glorious expanse of wonder and discovery. With each new dish, my enthusiasm grows. I use cooking to feed both my belly and my soul.

What about you? Why do you cook?

(Keep reading Salty Spoon Challenge, Month 2…)


On January 2, 2010, I made a colossal mistake. My reason paralyzed by the overwhelming desire to install a cookbook shelf in my kitchen, I ventured out to the Pottery Barn in Pasadena. Inside, I found myself surrounded by a scene that bore marked resemblance to my idea of hell. Noisy, crowded, lots of wicker, people wandering about willy nilly as though the world ended at their elbows. It was a mad house. The only thing missing was a continuous loop of Sandra Lee screeching DELICIOUS! while making things out of cheez whiz.

I made it out alive, shelf in hand, steadfastly recommitted to my disdain for shopping. I like buying stuff, just not the process of actually going and doing it. As a consequence I tend to stick with things that I already know work. Cosmetics are the sole exception to this rule, as I am a complete sucker for new and different products (if it promises to airbrush my skin, I’m a goner). My makeup collection has, in fact, been accused of having its own luggage. I can neither confirm nor deny the truth of that statement, though I can wholeheartedly endorse the concept of a well-made train case.


Eyeshadow aside, I am a product loyalist. My favorite work pants? I have three, identical pairs. The same goes for sweaters, t-shirts, hoodies, blouses, etc. If it fits, I’ll buy several. Likewise with food staples. My tenacity for buying bulk multiples of my trusty favorites is dampened only by the storage failings of our house (note to future home buyers: there is no such thing as too much storage, there is no such thing as too much storage, there is no such…eh, you’ll figure it out someday).

One of my very favorite protein staples is turkey Italian sausage. I try to keep at least one package each of sweet and hot varieties in our fridge or freezer at all times. Lean and full of flavor, I get a lot of bang for my caloric buck out of a link or two. They bring a tempered saltiness to dishes without overpowering them like pork sausage sometimes does. Mostly, though, I adore the satisfying richness of their lean fat content; just enough to sate the mind and belly, but nothing more.


Because I keep turkey Italian sausage more readily on hand than I do pancetta or bacon, I swap them when it makes sense. When I read the following recipe, which calls for pancetta, I had a hunch that my turkey sausages would fill in handsomely. And they did. Thankfully, I have more in the freezer.

What are your favorite food staples?

(Keep reading Rotini with Butternut Squash and Italian Sausage…)


Have you heard? It’s raining in LA.  I am sure my readers in Canada and New York and Chicago and Utah and Montana and Michigan and… everywhere else outside California, with real, snowy winters of your own, may not consider several consecutive days of rain in Southern California to be newsworthy, but around here it’s quite the story.  In a land where “winter” is marked by blooming camelias and perpetual tans, a bit of a drizzle on the Golden Globes’ red carpet is practically unthinkable.


I miss seasons.  When our rain finally comes, I revel in it.  The towering eucalyptus trees across the street broadcast their mossy, lilting scent over our house whenever a gust of wind wafts through their rainsoaked branches.  As I climb the stairs to our front door on a rainy night, I marvel at the scent, thinking this is what every candle and fabric softener has tried to mimic with fragrance names like eucalyptus rain.


Evenings this week have been chilly and damp as the storms wax and wane.  It’s perfect weather for a bowl full of something rich and spicy.  The kind of thing you’d describe as rib-sticking.  I’ve been particularly enamored with quinoa recently, and find it to be a lovely base for this quick, spicy chicken stew.  You might not use all the quinoa you’ll make here – toss leftovers with the ingredients for a chickpea salad for a profoundly filling lunch.  Serve the stew with extra sriracha to keep your ribs warm as you watch your snow, your rain, or your camelias.
(Keep reading Spicy Chicken & Quinoa Stew…)


Wee, tiny versions of regular-sized things are almost always irresistible.  Mini Twix? Check. Kittens? Check. Those tiny, lady finger bananas? Double check.  Brussels sprouts? Not so much.

I think of them as an adult vegetable – one you only learn to properly appreciate when you’ve finally laid your inner six-year-old to rest so she can stop saying EWWW about such things. They’re a nutritional powerhouse, packed with vitamins and protein.  And they are as cute as they can be, like perfect little cabbages for fairies and other small creatures interested in vitamin K.


I happen to love them.   After I was inspired to try Suzanne Goin’s balsamic braised version (amazing), I started playing around with other ways to braise these mighty balls of leafy might to perfection.  One night, I decided to use them in place of pasta under simple pan-seared scallops.  Braised in the tomato sauce, the Brussels sprouts took on a rich, tangy flavor while adding enough bulk to reasonably qualify the dish as a one-bowl meal.  Their earthy heft handily balances the scallops’ sweet, spongy levity here; add a heel of crusty bread and you have a perfect storm of flavor and texture.  It’s satisfying but not heavy which comes in handy in this, the season of dietetic good intentions.


Since it’s technically winter (even Los Angeles is hurting for decent fresh tomatoes this time of year), I stick with canned tomatoes.  I’ve been enjoying the various offerings in Muir Glen’s 2009 Organic Reserve gift box recently, and the fire roasted diced tomatoes were an absolute knock out for this sauce.  Any 14.5 oz can of petite diced tomatoes will do, but I highly recommend looking into Muir Glen for a bit of extra sparkle.
(Keep reading Braised Brussels Sprouts with Tomatoes and Scallops…)


I’ve been putting off this post for a few weeks because I am desperately trying to remember the salient details of a story about lentil and sausage soup.  It was at least 20 years ago.  I can remember being doubled over laughing in the soup aisle of a grocery store, shrieking and crying over the hilarity of Progresso’s Lentil and Sausage Soup.  If you just stopped to reread that sentence in order to pick up whatever word you missed that would clue you in to what might possibly be so uproariously funny about lentil and sausage soup, do not panic.

That’s the detail I can’t remember.  I’ve been kicking that story stub around my poor little brain for several days to no avail, and I just can’t hold out on the recipe any longer.  It doesn’t help that I’ve had a song stuck in my head for days.  A horrible song.  It is nearly impossible to remember funny stories from your childhood when the one-hit-wonder LEN is screaming WOULD YOU STEAL MY SUNSHINE?!! during every quiet moment, to say nothing of the difficulties it presents at work.  I’m not going to say that those words made it into a motion last week, just that having professional proofreaders on staff is a really beautiful thing.

The upshot of the story is this: we tried the soup, it was amazing, I fell in love with the combination of lentils and sausage, and Progresso can enjoy an everlasting bout of shingles for discontinuing it.


Since the soup is no longer available, we have to make do on our own.  But freed from the confines of the can, lentils and sausage show themselves to be equally charming without the accompaniment of broth, their trusty backup dancer.  We had so much fun with butternut squash earlier this month that I thought I’d feature acorn squash, another one of my favorites.  Petite and perfect, they bake handsomely when paired with a little butter and maple syrup. I find combining them with lentils and sausage to be particularly satisfying.  The lentils and squash are both earthy and smooth, but in slightly different ways; their textures complement each other while their flavors layer gently.  Hot Italian sausage, when paired with the sweetness of the maple syrup, is vibrant but softly restrained.  The result is a happy little barbershop quartet of flavors, portioned perfectly in its own ready-made bowl.


You will notice that you end up with a lot of extra lentils.  It’s sort of intentional.  In order to avoid leaving you high and dry without sufficient lentil coverage for any particularly robust acorn squash you may encounter, I’ve asked you to make more than you need.  Still, since it’s frustrating to end up with an extra third of a serving of something, I’ve given you a basic proportion for about three cups of cooked lentils.  This way, you have plenty to eat as leftovers by themselves, in a salad, in soup, whathaveyou.  If having extra lentils really puts a knot in your knickers, reduce as your heart desires.
(Keep reading Acorn Squash with Lentils and Sausage…)


October was a powerful month. It managed to pull the perpetually sunny southern California into semi-submission to its wiles. During our 12-day visit to the east coast in the middle of the month, something here changed. Upon our return, it was as though a switch had been flipped. Suddenly it was dark for the first four snooze cycles of my alarm clock. My drive home was cloaked in navy velveteen, the sky betraying its last few gasps of mauve behind inky silhouettes of palm trees that keep watch over Sunset Boulevard.  Though warm and golden during the day, dawn and dusk decidedly fell prey to the seductive, autumnal call of October.

I can’t blame them. Even in temperate zones, fall is cotton-clad warmth. Fall is cozy. Fall is a gilded, tender embrace before the year tumbles swiftly and rambunctiously into oblivion. However fleeting it may be, fall is a lovely time of year.


As I bid adieu to summer’s berry-laden bounty each year, I am quickly comforted by the sweet, earthy delights of squash and wintry greens. Enter kale, and its acerbic wit. Growing up, I enjoyed heaps of kale in a delicate beef stew, speckled at the last minute with a beaten egg. Its stiffly leafed fortitude is no match for heat; no matter how many leaves you add to the stew, it always seems to accommodate them.

Though I had planned to braise a bunch of kale with cauliflower and beans last week, I couldn’t resist tossing a few leaves into a blistering hot pan with garlic and the last ears of the summer’s sweet corn. I made this for myself one night when I was home alone, fully intending it to complement some leftover chicken but never making it that far. The back-arching tang of the lemon joins with a bit of sea salt to goad the vegetables into asskicking mode. Pay attention, they seem to say, this is going to knock your socks off. Hang on tight and keep another pair of socks handy; November is here, and it isn’t messing around, either.

(Keep reading Kale and Sweet Corn…)


I learned to arm wrestle really, really well working at the Olive Garden.  It had almost nothing to do with being a hostess there, but the arm wrestling champion of Butte, Montana taught me herself.  Her name was Mary, and she was a great teacher.

The key to winning at arm wrestling, according to Mary, is two-fold.  Getting the knot of forearms, hands, and elbows into a configuration that allows you to pull with your bicep is of paramount importance.  Getting there quickly, to the abject shock of your opponent, is equally critical.  Done correctly, you’ll leave them painfully mumbling in your dust as you swagger away, heady with the pride of your win.  Though the expression is woefully time-worn, it really is all in the wrist.

For two summers and a winter break in college, I was part of the front of the house “A team” at the Olive Garden in Billings.  I had applied for work at several restaurants in town, and the Olive Garden was one of my last stops because it was the furthest strip mall from my house.  It shared a parking lot with Red Lobster, where I failed the 300-question personality test prior to my interview.  By the time I received a Dear Bria letter informing me that my immediate future did not include reciting pithy witticisms about a menu filled with shellfish, it was the OG or nothing.


My arm wrestling lesson came around the same time gnocchi were added to the menu, during my second summer. New additions to the menu meant team meetings at the restaurant on Saturday mornings, where we put the “know your food” OG principal into practice (the other four principals being hot food hot, cold food cold, money to the bank, and clean restrooms).  I don’t remember anything else from the tasting that day, nor do I really remember whether or not the gnocchi were any good.  I can only recall the moment that marked what would prove to be a weeks-long process in fighting about the pronunciation of “gnocchi.”  It was not, as I emphatically argued, acceptable to refer to it as “nookie.”

It’s a good thing none of us are 19 for more than, say, a year.  It’s just so difficult to know Everything and struggle to communicate it to the rest of the world given a paltry allotment of only 24 hours per day.  I believe Mary was neutral on the pronunciation debate, but favored some sort of object lesson that would shut me up for the sake of keeping the peace.   Somewhere between hearing her credentials and that first, brutal loss, I managed to forget about the pedantry of the matter.

Today, I don’t care if you call them gnocchi, nookie, or Wondrous Pillows of Carbtastic Splendor.  Just make them, and soon.

The ricotta quantity is stated in ounces, rather than cups.  If you buy your ricotta, it should make a difference to you as 15 to 16 oz is a standard size.  If you made whole-milk ricotta with me and are staring at a giant wad of cheese, wondering how much to use, get thee to the store and pick up a food scale.  It’s an excellent way to maintain consistency and accuracy in the kitchen.  Fundamental recipes are ratios based on weight, not volume, and you will open many doors for yourself with the ability to scale recipes up or down based on weight.  Get one.

Regarding the bread crumbs: I cheat.  If you happen to have a few slices of white sandwich bread laying around, remove the crusts and blitz them in a food processor.  Toast the resulting crumbs in a 300 degree oven for 10 minutes until they are golden and use them here.  Despite my bread-making proclivities, honey-oat whole wheat bread is the only kind we (almost) always have readily on hand.  It doesn’t make for very good bread crumbs, so I cheat with the kind in the little cardboard can.

(Keep reading Ricotta Gnocchi…)


When you feel helpless, the urge to search for ways to contribute something, somehow, overrides the little voice that says Hey, This Might Hurt. This is why a woman I knew volunteered to have her bone marrow tested for its compatibility with her brother’s even though his doctors were much more confident their other brother would be a match. Her name was Randy, and I was training her to replace me as the director of catering at a hotel in Montana.

Her brother had been diagnosed with leukemia, and it was both a crushing disappointment and a relief to him and his family. Though the outlook was fairly grim, everyone exhaled for the first time in months, now that they finally knew what was ailing him. Randy was tall, a sturdy Montana girl with a giant skull and beautiful skin. When she spoke, a northern Midwest accent chimed through each word. It’s the accent many people associate with North Dakota, because of Fargo, but sounds more like Montana to me. She offered up an honest-to-goodness doncha-know every third sentence. As she hung her massive head and cried about the diagnosis, she told me she wanted to be tested as a potential donor because it seemed like the only thing she could do to help.


She sat gingerly in my office – soon to be her office – after the appointment where they extracted a sample. The procedure had been painful, though no more so than one would expect to find any process that involves taking a bit of the good stuff out of your hip bone through a needle. Still, more than the pain, Randy was bewildered by what the extracted marrow actually looked like. “It just looked like a little tube of blood!” she exclaimed. I wondered, out loud, what she had been expecting. “Well, from the pictures on the wall in the office, I was expecting it to look like…like…” she paused, “what’s in manicotti?” I blinked. “Ricotta?” She slapped the top of my desk and grinned. “Ricotta! That’s what I thought it would look like. I’ve been thinking of nothing but ricotta for a week.”

I was then faced with one of those adult moments, where one has to balance discretion and self-control with a serendipitous opportunity to be really, really funny. Should I smile and nod and suggest we hit the new burrito stand across the street? Or should I take advantage of the best segue ever to land in my lap and ask if she wanted to try the hotel chef’s newest lunch creation, pasta shells stuffed with sausage and ricotta?

The burrito was delicious.


Now, how about some ricotta! It’s actually pretend ricotta. Proper ricotta is made from leftover whey after making cheese, but this is a nice approximation for home use. It’s ridiculously simple and leaves you with that lovely, smug look-at-me-being-very-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder feeling without taking much in the way (whey, heh) of time or special equipment.

(Keep reading Whole-Milk Ricotta…)


As I have mentioned, we’ve been enjoying Shabbat dinners on a regular basis. Jewish or not, I think everyone should give the Shabbat dinner concept a go. You don’t have to light candles or say prayers, just try on the meal for size. It doesn’t have to be Friday, either, though I think the tandem formality and comfort of the meal creates a beautiful bookend to a hectic work week. Set a table. Pour some wine. Turn off the television and the phones. Enjoy the company of another person. Prepare something delicious and savor each bite. If you want to learn how to eat, how to really enjoy food, this is a good place to start.


Last Friday, we had lamb chops with our challah and wine. John threw together one of his beautiful chopped salads and we were set for a fine meal. Though we both intended to do more work after dinner, somehow the soft glow of the Shabbat candles made it impossible to abandon the remainder of the challah. So we sat there, making our way through a bottle of wine and the rest of the bread, talking and laughing about everything and nothing. You couldn’t plan a more perfect evening if you tried.

Though it was the challah that kept us at the table for over an hour, the lamb shone brilliantly in its own right. Lamb is a lovely addition to your regular meat routine. I’ve been delighted to find packages of 8-10 beautiful little chops at Costco in recent weeks. You can also usually find them at the meat counter in your regular grocery store. Plan to serve between 3 and 5 chops per person as there is typically a smallish teardrop of meat on each bone.


I like my lamb to be simple and very rare so that the wild, rowdy flavor comes through without a lot of interference. This sauce is a basic ratio that will handle 8 small chops – adjust up or down as needed. Note that although the chops will be fully coated in the sauce in the beginning, much of it will cook away. Fear not, the blissful melody of the mustard and olive oil will still sing out in every bite, especially the bite you follow with a final morsel of challah.


(Keep reading Mustard-Glazed Lamb Chops…)


Today I share with you one of my all-time favorite dishes.  It kept me warm and happy on many a cold winter night in Ann Arbor, yet still tastes good in the laughable gesture Los Angeles makes towards colder weather.  Oh hell, it’s great in summer months, too.  The earthy gravitas of the beans blends so well with the spirited mirth of the basil amidst the tomatoes’ warm embrace.  I’ve given you two variations here, one with meat and one with vegetables.  Though different, the flavors of these two anchors complement the rest of the dish handsomely and with gusto. The method is essentially the same for both.  I recommend using turkey Italian sausage rather than pork to keep it on the lighter side.  If you go the vegetable route and can’t find anything other than gargantuan eggplants, use half of a big one.


I can’t go any further into a recipe about eggplant without telling you how I was afraid of eggplant when I was little.  Petrified. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the taste; I’m not even sure I ate enough to have an opinion either way.  I was actually scared, in the don’t-turn-your-back-on-this-horrid-threat way.  And it was Brian Petersen’s fault.  He was a few years older than me, and our families attended the same church.  He was the charming lad who told me the Easter bunny was really my parents (this, obviously, during my pre-Jew days).  You’ve met this kid, or at least someone like him.  One afternoon, he told me in no uncertain terms to watch out for eggplant, because they were what happened to bald men’s heads after death.  If you look at an eggplant and pretend you are 4 years old, you can see that this is just credible enough to warrant careful consideration. I don’t remember when I realized it wasn’t true, but it wasn’t before a piece of eggplant parmesan fell on my knee and PANIC ENSUED.  It was like having a giant bee on my shoulder.  I wanted to get it off as quickly as possible, but I didn’t want to anger it with any sudden moves.  I came unglued quickly and quietly until I couldn’t keep it in any longer and had the mother of all meltdowns.  If I was able to explain any part of the problem through my hysterics, I’m sure it didn’t clarify anything about what was going on.  It was a tantrum co-directed by Tarantino and Dali.  Thankfully, eggplant and I have since reconciled.


The yield for this recipe isn’t a typo - it really makes about 10 servings.  It may surprise you to know that I fell in love with this recipe when I was single and living alone.  Why?  It’s fast and freezes beautifully.  I recommend getting your hands on a pile of 1-2 serving-size storage containers (I like Gladware, but go with what moves you) and portioning it out among them.  This way you can take one or two out of the freezer when you need them and keep the rest in icy hibernation until you’re ready for pasta again.


Because of the yield, you need a large skillet and a large mixing bowl to pull this off.  Any skillet under 14″ will make you break out in hives as you try to mix it all together at the end without spilling the whole mess on your stove.  If you can’t swing a big skillet, a large saucepan will also work - just make sure it has at least a 3-quart capacity.
(Keep reading Hearty Garden Pasta…)

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