Saturday Night Special

Emergency Dinner

I’m insanely competitive, but only with myself. Many mistake this for low self-esteem; on the contrary, I’m just not that concerned with everyone else. Since becoming a stay-at-home mother, I’ve had to institute policies that keep me on my toes, as the lack of a supervisor translates into the lack of a glowing annual review. For example, I try to cook as many meals out of the week as possible, not for the warm contentment that comes from nourishing one’s family, but because an uninterrupted string of “HCD”s (home-cooked dinner) on my wall calendar reassures me that I’m earning a nice pointy A. The only real feedback I get from my subordinates comes in the forms of screams, wails and tantrums, and the occasional “I love you” is usually a last-ditch attempt to elude the repercussional time-out nap. So my need to self-monitor/praise manifests in my psyche’s constant addition of items to my daily to-do lists, while conscious executive-me gripes through each chore, cursing the perfectionist work ethic instilled by a former Catholic (nicely done, Mrs. S!).

There are no corners that the tiny slacker who lives deep inside me and constantly undermines my cultivation of hustle won’t cut, so a good percentage of HCDs involves prepared foods, to my chagrin. I reserve jarred sauces for the end of the week, which usually finds me too disoriented and frazzled to be trusted with a measuring cup. It would be impressive, indeed, to screw up this mindless but tasty pasta dish, and I don’t offer it because I assume you need help putting spaghetti together, but to reassure you that even I don’t start every dinner at the farmers’ market. In fact, I avoid farmers’ markets as well as the California attitude they promote.

1 jar Newman’s Own Roasted Garlic and Peppers Sauce
1 16-oz box spaghetti (1/2 box per 2 eaters)
1 pkg sweet Italian sausage (5 or 6 links)
olive oil

Cover and heat up the sauce in a medium saucepan over low while you fry the sausage in 1 tbsp olive oil over medium-high/medium until completely cooked (fill the emptied — not rinsed! — sauce jar with hot water and add as needed to the sauce to achieve the desired consistency). Toss the completely cooked (it’s never redundant) sausage into the sauce along with 1 tbsp of the pan sludge, and continue to cook over low, covered, stirring occasionally, while you boil well-salted water for the pasta and cook it. When the spaghetti is done (drain, but don’t rinse), so is the sauce. Look at all that free time! Let’s find some trim that needs a fresh coat of paint.

Chard, where have you been all my life?

Vegetarian But In No Way Vegan Lasagna


By some miracle all of my children are asleep at the same time in the middle of the day, and I can’t say I have high hopes for the completion of this particular nugget. Getting straight to the point, I am adding a new standard to not only my vegetarian repertoire, but to the Team-Peña fortnightly rotation as well. I’ve more than established my Seinfeld/Newman relationship with the vegetable, but every so often a new one gets past the gatekeeper, and as luck would have it, I like Swiss Chard. I’m not leaving Mr. P for it, but I like it. I made this for dinner last week when the fearless culinary maven Jess came over for some hair-of-the-Christmas, and I would have made it every night since but for the delightful and ridiculous amount of cheese involved. I was obviously in holiday shock when I undertook the recipe, serving something for the first time to a guest, experimenting with new leaves, and purchasing organic, whole-wheat lasagna noodles. I seemed to have temporarily misplaced my character.

Incorporating two of my favorite things (mushrooms sauteed with nutmeg, and ricotta), it was the sort of delicious that causes you to repress grunts, snorts and moans, and make at least a halfhearted attempt to refrain from wolfing. I found the recipe on Epicurious, and will link instead of typing it out, as I’d suggest only a few alterations. I wound up spooning out about a half cup of onions once they were in the pan with the chard, as the proportion just seemed off, and I’m glad I did. I was out of Extra Virgin, so I used regular and it was just fine, and I have no idea if my bay leaf was Turkish. Finally, I’d recommend any kind of whole-wheat noodles (who really cares if their pasta’s organic?). That last part was not an invitations for smart remarks.

I think I’ve handled this rather well.

Baked Shrimp in Tomato and Feta Sauce

Every once in a while, I so successfully execute a new recipe that Mr. P’s eyes glaze over and professions of eternal fealty and adoration ensue. I’m almost certain that after tonight’s dinner he would have carried out Project Shift-It for me, had I asked. Conceived as an act of psychological retribution for the most earnestly incompetent and commitless manager under whom I’ve ever worked, I devised this lulling fantasy during his weekly departmental status meetings as a means of distraction from the overwhelming urge to plunge the nib of my Bic pen through my retina. Project Shift-It involves detailed disguise preparation, unmarked vehicle acquisition, strict adherence to universal bandit precautions, breaking and entering while target is out, and the rotation of all furniture and movable objects in the main room, one wall clockwise.

Getting back to dinner, I contained my urge to alter anything about this recipe for Baked Shrimp in Tomato Feta Sauce from Simply Recipes, a site that’s quickly earning my trust and esteem. Let us hope we are not disappointed. I used my new cast iron pan and served it over spaghetti, accompanied by thick slices of an erudite “boule.” My only suggestion is that you have the salt shaker handy. The slight snap that the onions retain is a delightful contrast to the tomatoes’ amorphishness, and I learned that, if you add enough, parsley actually has a flavor. I won’t retype the recipe here, as that’s tacky and basically plagiarism, so now I’m going to use my extra few minutes of freedom to sneak in some decoupage.

Don’t get excited, that’s not chicken.

Vegetarian Appeasement

Growing up, our dinners generally consisted of three minimally touching food group representatives, and since I automatically hated the vegetable component, it never occurred to me to eschew one of the remaining categories. Is there a term for a strictly dairy and carb diet? That said, those of us who find nothing at all disturbing about the meat wall at the supermarket should keep in mind that any dinner or cocktail party we throw will likely have a few guests who would appreciate a vegetarian option other than potatoes and salad. This one uses several often overlooked ingredients, making you look creative and thoughtful, leading your vegetarian diners to feel special. And that they are.

1 box cavatelli pasta
1 10 oz jar sundried tomatoes in olive oil (julienned will save you time), finely chopped, oil reserved
1 12 oz jar artichoke hearts in oil or water, drained and finely chopped
1/4 red onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp pinenuts
2 tbsp capers
3 fresh basil leaves, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
freshly grated Parmesan
olive oil
salt and pepper

Set the oven to 350 and prepare the pasta according to the package directions.

Heat 3 tbsp of the reserved tomato oil in a large, deep pan over med-high heat. Saute the onion, garlic and pine nuts just until the garlic begins to turn gold, then grab the pan away from the heat and give it a few seconds to prevent the garlic from burning while you turn the heat down to medium. Put the pan back on the stove and add a little more tomato oil, followed by the tomatoes and artichokes. Cook and stir until most of the water released from the artichokes has evaporated, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 minutes. Stir in the remainder of the reserved tomato oil – yeah, it’s a lot of oil – and toss in the capers, basil, salt and pepper. Stir the sauce well, scraping up any sticky bits at the bottom. Cover the pan, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 15 minutes.

The pasta should be done right around the same time, figuring in the time required to boil a big pot of water, so assuming you pulled it off, combine the pasta and sauce in a large bowl or the pot used to cook the pasta. Stir until you’re certain you’ve eliminated any sticky colonies of uncoated cavatelli. Transfer the pasta to its serving dish or bowl, and serve the Parmesan in a nearby bowl with a spoon. This has got to be at least close to vegan? Is there eggless pasta? I’ll be working on that in my sleep tonight.

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