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
salt

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.

I needed a win.

Stolen Chicken

Mrs. Pena is back in the saddle. I’ve been repeatedly browsing a site I stumbled upon a few weeks ago, and in spite of my recent and concerning spike in dinner misses, this evening I mustered up some fortitude, selected a recipe based on an attractive photo, and was indescribably relieved with the breathtaking final result. That said, some last-minute finagling and adjustments were vital, and I’ll admit it was touch-and-go at one point. My version did not resemble the referenced photo; it was darker with a richer sauce — more rustic (here I’m applying the ironic Pottery Barn definition). Obviously, I suggest you go with the following recipe versus the linked. I also concede that Mr. P is right; this web log does indeed need photos.

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6 oz cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/2 C chopped shallots
3 tbsp finely chopped sage
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 1/4 C heavy whipping cream
1 C dry vermouth
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp honey (Mr. P saved the day with this addition)
salt and pepper

Pound the chicken with a meat tenderizer (a rolling pin works in a pinch, but get the disinfectant bath ready) to a thickness anywhere between 1/3″ and 1/2.” Salt and pepper the breasts on both sides, then put them on a plate, set it aside, and attend to the tiny chicken particles all over your counter and surrounding cupboards.

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat, add the shallots, and saute for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms and parsley and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have softened, about 7 minutes. Evidently, cremini mushrooms have a much lower water content than the standard white button, so if you haven’t used them before, don’t freak out when they won’t caramelize the same way. Leave the burner on and transfer the entire mixture to a bowl.

Immediately put the olive oil in the pan, give it a few seconds to heat up, and add the chicken. If necessary, cook it in shifts and transfer finished breasts to a plate in the oven at 250. The breasts should take about 4 minutes per side, but always sneak a test-slice when in doubt.

Once all the chicken is relaxing in the oven (and I didn’t direct you to turn off the burner), pour in the vermouth and deglaze the pan with a spatula. Slowly pour in the cream while stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk until the color is consistent. Add the mushroom mixture back in, as well as the sage and honey, and bring the sauce to a moderate boil, stirring frequently. Don’t worry if it seems too boozy just yet, as it will reduce over the next 10 minutes, thickening nicely and losing a good deal of the alcohol taste. Wait until the sauce is basically done before adding salt and pepper, since you won’t get a real sense of the flavor until then.

Plate up the chicken and top generously; I find egg noodles to be fantastic vehicles for sauce supplementation. If it’s vegetable day, I’d recommend baby carrots steamed with butter and thyme. It was, in fact, vegetable day for us, and I found them wonderfully palatable.

A Beefy New Year

T-Bone Peña

My resolution for the new year has been to expand my sauce repertoire, from béchamels and gravies to reductions and compotes. I’m also striving to take more risks with bottled staples and spices, so hold onto your hat, Mr. P! Speaking of whom, my doting and cultured spouse was the fortunate recipient this Christmas of four perfect T-bones from my father, Mr. S. We had the final steak last night (our cheeks have never been rosier), and I was delighted that the following tastes as good as I had imagined.

1 1-1/2″ thick T-bone steak
1 12-oz pkg white button mushrooms, sliced with stems
3 tbsp salted butter
1/2 C sherry
1/2 tsp nutmeg
4 drops Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper

Position the top oven rack so that the meat will be 2″ from the flame and turn your broiler on to high. Season the steak on both sides with salt and pepper and place it on a rack over a roasting pan, then stick it in the oven directly under the fire. 10 minutes per side should do it, as it will sit for a few minutes out of the oven while you finish the mushroom sauce.

Melt 2 tbsp of butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. When the foaming subsides, add the mushrooms and toss to coat. After a few minutes, put the remaining 1 tbsp chunk of butter in the middle of the pan and swirl it around the bottom, through the mushrooms, as it melts. At this point, your mushrooms should be sufficiently buttered. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until they release quite a bit of water. When most of it’s evaporated, sprinkle in the nutmeg and stir briefly before pouring in 1/4 C of the sherry. Boil down the liquid until the mushrooms are dark brown and just moist, then transfer them to a bowl and set it on the stove top to stay warm.

Ding! Did you manage to complete the above paragraph in 20 minutes and remember to turn the steak half-way through? If so, you should be pleased with yourself. Park the steak elsewhere and pour the fat out of the pan, then place it on a burner set to medium-high heat. Once it’s hot, pour in the other 1/4 C sherry, and swirl it around in the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen anything sticky. When it boils, incorporate the Worcestershire, throw in the mushrooms, stir, and continue cooking until they’re hot through and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 3 minutes. Serve atop your T-bone, and don’t worry about a starch, though a salad actually works well here, bite my tongue.

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