I hear it’s fantastic, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Best Vegetarian Chili I Never Tasted

I love a challenge. I hosted a baby shower for the radiant and ever-gracious Jess D last Sunday, and it was a rare occasion to find more vegetarians and vegans on the guest list than otherwise. Regretfully, I may have harbored a tinge of culinary resentment toward the sans-meat crowd back when I had endless, uninterrupted prep time before parties to spend on crown roasts, sushi, and various fowl. But now that I average two diaper changes while waiting for my morning coffee to percolate, I’m grateful whenever the time-consuming task of meat preparation is rendered null.

Obviously, my tried and true Vegetarian Appeasement made the spread, but I needed one more vegetarian entree, having been physically unable to hold back from applying the bacon topping to You Ain’t Leavin’ Mac & Cheese. Somehow, I was able to locate the recipe for a meatless chili I made six Labor Days ago, combing through search results on Epicurious until I found one with a familiar, ridiculously long list of ingredients.

‘Vores of all walks claimed to enjoy the chili, but one should never take guests’ compliments as honest criticism. I’ll admit that I don’t eat chili of any kind, ever, so I had no idea what was going on in those bowls. However, Mr. P revisited the leftovers twice, legitimizing it as an official victory.

I find it inordinately satisfying to approach meals I prepare and events I host as competitions with myself. None of my children put up a fair fight at anything other than Candy Land, and I no longer work in an office environment (where competitive baking is always encouraged), so I have no choice but to set my own bar progressively higher in order to routinely best past selves. A disconcerting side effect of my approach to staying sharp has been my inner monologue’s shift to a dialogue, with definite manager and underling roles.

In addition to barking orders at my underling and maintaining a high level of hustle in the kitchen, my manager enforces our unnecessarily rigorous weekly schedule, ensures everyone is dressed and fed by eight, and gets us all strapped in the car and on our way by nine. My underling wonders if my manager has been overbooking us lately, but the former doesn’t get a say. Fortunately for my underling, my manager (who’s also in charge of menu planning) is a voracious carnivore, and while this chili is now a standard in our vegetarian repertoire, we’re still not eating it.

Angry Cooking

Angry Chicken

I decided to shelve a 986-word rant regarding my threshold for inconsideration and incompetence across all age groups having possibly been crossed. It turned out that being stood-up for a blind play date with all three kids at Funworld, and my resulting expulsion from a playgroup I’d never been to, did not, in fact, kill me. Nor did the overly audible comment from a woman behind me in line at the Hallmark store as I waited to have an ornament boxed so I could quickly remove my whiny children from the public sphere. Please don’t bother getting irked on my behalf at her declaration of “I don’t understand people who have more kids than they can handle.” In exchange for her helpful insight, I provided her with something to work on with her therapist for the next several years. And Sally the Entitled’s incessant reproachment of my parenting still hasn’t plateaued, but fortunately, I have an abundance of faith in myself, and rubes, barbs, and gripes haven’t debilitated me. On the contrary, my fury-induced blood pressure spikes result in waves of some of my best cooking.

It was a rare occasion yesterday afternoon when, although I had adequate hustle and elan to cook something delicious, I considered the prospect of a trip to the market as appealing as participating in organized running. I may send Simply Recipes a Christmas gift; I had chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and not much else, but the resulting Chicken, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes with Port Wine caused an elated Mr. P to unconsciously hum quietly until he admirably gave up just before the bite that would have killed the evening.

I’m sure you’re aware of my penchant for a well-executed cream sauce, but this is a refreshingly dairy-free combination of shallot and mushroom, and the tomato manages to restrain itself to a supporting role. The final reduction is spectacular, and even better when drizzled over whatever accompanies your chicken; in retrospect I would have gone with rice, as my choice of egg noodles proved to be a slippery one.

So even though the end of my tether is in clear sight, the pairing of productive, passionate ire with a reliable site for new recipes culminates in several days of Michelin-worthy dinners at Chez Peña, before my wrath cools back down to mild irritability and Mr. P resigns himself with grace and dignity to another long stretch of family-restaurant-tier cooking. But not tonight. Tonight, I summon my last sputters of anger for Sherry-Dijon London Broil with caramelized shallots and rice pilaf.

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.

Teeth. Jealousy. Shanks.

More Italian Than Not Chicken Parmesan

It’s not the incessant and simultaneous wails of two teething babies that have driven me to enact a semi-weekly 5:00 cocktail hour (consisting of two shots of amaretto), but more the straining required to hear the tiny, inappropriately quiet voice of a certain toddler over the racket, and ultimately realizing that the urgent refrain is none other than the jaw-clench-inducing “what are you doooing?” It’s become part of Monk Jr’s routine, and every time I change a diaper or feed a belly (activities which infuriate whoever isn’t receiving the attention), Billy the Kid is right there, inaudibly inquiring about the nature of my distraction from El Dicta-toro. “Well, what do you think I’m doing?” I ask in a sweet but pretty obviously condescending tone. And what do you know, BK offers the correct answer every time.

It’s Friday, and I have nothing left for anyone. No energy, no functioning brain cells, no sympathy. Teeth hurt? Yeah, I’ve been there, too. But guess what. You get Orajel, Tylenol, and eventually teeth. Bored? Why don’t you head down to the basement and see what/who you can rustle up. Hungry? Next scheduled feeding, how about drinking more than an ounce instead of looking around frantically to make sure your sister isn’t happy? Today’s snow was the literal icing on the proverbial cake. The only thing that induces more guilt in me than not taking the underlings out into the world at least once a day is taking them out under sub-par driving conditions, and putting their tiny lives at a slightly higher risk than usual. My serious need for some contact with civilization: denied.

The death of such a bastard of a week should be observed properly, with a seam-splitting meal involving cheese, a casserole dish, and meat, that will have us all unconscious and transported out of the hell that has been February 21 through 25 (with a brief respite on the 24th spanning the length of Jess D’s visit). For those who need it spelled out: Chicken Parmesan. In spite of my insecurities about preparing cuisines of nationalities to which I have no relation, I found a promising recipe on Simply Recipes, a site that has yet to disappoint me (well played, Ms. B). Aside from a smidge too much heat from the red pepper flakes, this is what I hope for whenever I order Chicken Parm at a restaurant, though I haven’t been able to find it outside of Providence’s Federal Hill.

Speaking of Federal Hill, my father, the venerable Mr. S, alerted me of an interview with the locally famous Baby Shanks Manocchio, in which the former Patriarca family boss (and serial restauranteur extraordinaire) was asked about the nature of his name. It turns out that his original nickname was Baby Shacks, an allusion to his success at finding continual transitional housing with charitable women, but that the erroneous “Shanks” eventually replaced “Shacks,” some assuming it referred to his stature, others convinced he must fashion a mean shiv. When asked for the final word, Manocchio offered the entirely unhelpful “what does it really matter?” Seldom does my heart pine so achingly for my state.

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.


Zingy Toms

These little cherry bombs can be prepared well in advance, clear all dietary restrictions aside from non-carbon based, and serve as the ultimate palate cleanser between mixed drinks. I should mention these are based on a recipe from the Martha Stewart H’ors D’Oeuvres Handbook  (1999), a book I highly recommend, both for its fantastic recipes and over a hundred pages of saliva-inducing close-ups bordering on food porn.

24 large cherry tomatoes
1/4 C finely chopped black olives (French or Italian, your choice. Not that there’s no difference, I’m just not much of an olive person.)
1/4 C finely chopped green olives (again, they just need to be green)
3 finely chopped white button mushrooms
1/4 C finely chopped red onion
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper

You can prepare the tomato cups up to 24 hours in advance, then keep them wrapped and chilled. The tapenade can also be made ahead of time, but it gets zingier by the hour.

The top of the cherry tomato is the flattest part, so this will be the bottom of the cup. Using a small sharp knife, slice the not-stem end off, far enough up the tomato to hit seed. Use whatever you have on hand to gut the tomatoes; I use a metal quarter-teaspoon, Mrs. H prefers a melon baller. Place the cups face down on a dinner plate lined with a paper towel, wrap the whole thing up and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour to get the tomatoes firm and chilly.

To make the tapenade, mix up all the other ingredients. An anticlimactic ratio of prep work to execution, right? Stuff the tomatoes as full as possible without splitting the skin in your vigor, and plate them up on something fancy.

I’m in the mood for cheese.

Fantsy-Pantsy Caprese Toasts

I rock my few vices hard. I smoke like a salmon, will probably die from aspartame, and have a penchant for cheeses that blur the line between cream and butter. My version of a dirty weekend involves an empty house, a BBC Victorian miniseries, four baguettes, and two wheels of Camembert or triple créme. When it comes to cooking, however, I find a big fresh ball of mozzarella yields some of the most gratifying results. Mrs. H, who you’ll remember from the post before last, tipped me off to freezing mozzarella before grating to avoid the mangled cheese limb effect. For the following hors d’oeuvres, I prefer slicing the mozzarella into thin chunks for a more rustic presentation. I don’t know if buffalo mozzarella makes a huge difference, but I think we can agree that it’s fun to imagine someone milking a water buffalo.

1 French baguette
1 1/2 C seeded and diced plum tomatoes
4 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 C fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced into thin chunks
2 garlic cloves, minced
olive oil
salt and pepper

Combine the tomatoes, basil, 2 tbsp olive oil and salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Wrap it up and stick it the fridge for an hour.

Set the over to 350. Take a bite of the tomatoes and adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Slice the baguette into 1/2″-thick rounds and place them on a cookie sheet. Heat 3 tbsp of olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, then saute the garlic for a minute until it softens, but don’t let it burn. Brush the baguette slices with the garlic oil, pile each with a few tablespoons of tomatoes, and top with two mozzarella chunks. Bake at 350 until the mozzarella melts and just starts to show some flecks of brown.

These cool quickly, so start shoveling.

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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