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Cook Happy Project Week 15

Happy Thursday. I’m back. Life got busy for a bit there, but the blog beckons 🙂

For a little over a year now, as I’ve had to navigate the dissolution of my marriage and much of life as I once knew it, I’ve had a heightened appreciation for the power of memory, and more specifically, the power of music to evoke memory,  transporting me to times and places that are rich in positive psychological states perhaps lacking in the present moment, like joy or possibility or a sense of expansiveness.

There is a beautiful piece of choral music called “Wanting Memories” that perhaps best encapsulates this sentiment. It opens: “I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes,” and goes on, addressing a God figure, “You used to rock me in the cradle of your arms. You said you’d hold me till the pains of life were gone. You said you’d comfort me in times of need, and now I need you, and now I need you, and you are God …” 

I am fortunate to have had two powerful and extraordinary (relatively speaking, in the context of my own life) formative experiences prior to my decade-long marriage, which I associate with feelings of great joy and wonder. These are my experiences performing and interning at the St. Louis Muny Opera, and my experience studying abroad in Arles, France.

My memories from The Muny are perhaps easier to access. All I have to do is turn on one of thousands of songs associated with that time in my life, and I can immediately access a brighter, lighter place in my soul.

And musical theatre, with its penchant for bravado and drama, is quite a vehicle for stories of “rising,” the word I picked for 2022. I find myself returning to songs like “Beautiful City,” from the 2011 revival of Godspell, and “The Circle of Life,” from the Broadway Revival of The Lion King, and “I Believe,” from Spring Awakening, among a million other show tunes. How about Audra McDonald’s rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music?

I don’t care if it sounds corny. Somehow all these musical declarations of triumph and redemption seem to be speaking directly to me, to my situation, fortifying me to keep on keepin’ on.

So. Cook Happy. But also—Sing Happy. Listen for the cues that remind you of where you came from, the part of you that transcends difficult circumstances. I am so, so grateful that music provides a portal into that essential, joyful part of myself, making me more resilient.

And now, turning to what’s cooking. I’ve got four recipes to share, a bit of a hodge podge, but all variations on the theme of comfort food.

To start, the richness of roasted mushrooms served over cheesy polenta (minus the attentive stove-top stirring—the polenta cooks in the oven along with the mushrooms).

Second, browned butter banana bread, topped with an entire caramelized banana. Salty, sweet, decadent. See these helpful tips for browning the butter with finesse.

Third, gnocchi with fresh mozzarella and grape tomatoes. It didn’t matter that I rushed the process, skipping the step where you broil the cheese—the natural flavors of the core ingredients do the heavy lifting.

And finally, a first attempt at caponata, which also qualifies as rich and decadent in my book, with its meaty chunks of eggplant and sugary, vinegar-laced sauce.

Enjoy. Be strong. Sing out loud.

Ginger

Oven Polenta with Roasted Mushrooms and Thyme
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Ingredients
1 ½ lb mixed mushrooms (cremini, shiitake, oyster, and/or maitake), torn into 1-inch pieces
4 sprigs thyme, plus leaves for serving
6 garlic cloves, smashed
Kosher salt and ground pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup polenta
4 oz. Parmesan, finely grated, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Flaky sea salt (optional)

Directions

  • Place racks in upper and lower thirds of oven; preheat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine mushrooms, thyme sprigs, and garlic on a large rimmed baking sheet. Season generously with kosher salt and pepper; drizzle with oil. Toss to coat mushrooms, then spread out in an even layer. (Make sure not to crowd the mushrooms on the baking sheet; otherwise, they’ll steam instead of getting crispy.) Transfer to upper rack in oven and let mushrooms roast while you prepare the polenta. 
  • Bring 4 ½ cups water to simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and a generous pinch of kosher salt and whisk to melt butter. Gradually add polenta, whisking constantly. (Gradually incorporating the polenta into the water is key to preventing clumps.) Return the mixture to a boil. Transfer the hot mixture to an oven-proof baking dish, cover, and place on the lower rack in the oven. Bake the polenta until it’s tender, 25-30 minutes, then remove from the oven, along with the roasted mushrooms.
  • Carefully uncover the polenta and whisk vigorously, scraping bottom of pan, until it is smooth and thick. Gradually add 4 oz. Parmesan, whisking constantly until melted and incorporated; taste and season with more kosher salt and pepper.
  • Drizzle the mushrooms with vinegar. Toss to coat; let cool slightly. 
  • Divide polenta among bowls and top with mushrooms, thyme leaves, sea salt, and more Parmesan. 

Brown-Butter Banana Bread
Adapted from TastingTable

Ingredients
Nonstick cooking spray, for greasing
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 large ripe bananas, mashed, plus 1 halved lengthwise for decoration
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar, plus more for coating
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.
  • In a light-colored saute pan, brown the butter and set aside.
  • In a small bowl, reserve 2 tablespoons of the browned butter for basting; let cool slightly.
  • In a medium bowl, mix the mashed bananas with the eggs until fully incorporated.
  • In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Using your hands, break apart any large clumps of sugar that remain.
  • Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients and mix together until just combined. 
  • Pour in the 8 tablespoons of melted brown butter and stir until fully incorporated. 
  • Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan. 
  • Dip the 2 banana halves in some brown sugar cut-sides down; dust off any excess sugar. 
  • Place the sugared bananas in the batter cut-sides up and bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. 
  • Optional: Once the banana bread has finished cooking, brush the top with the 2 tablespoons of reserved brown butter. Allow the banana bread to cool: serve slightly warm or completely cooled. 

Gnocchi with Tomatoes and Mozzarella
Adapted from New York Times Cooking

Ingredients
2 (12- to 18-ounce) packages shelf-stable or refrigerated potato gnocchi 
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed 
¼ cup unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more for serving (if desired)
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 pints small tomatoes (such as cherry or grape)
¼ cup sliced or torn basil leaves (or any dried herbs of your choosing that you have on hand)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut or torn into ½-inch pieces 

Directions

  • Cook the gnocchi in a pot of generously salted water according to package directions, or until they rise to the top of the water. Drain them right away in a colander. 
  • Place some olive oil in a large skillet, and swirl to coat the pan. Heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add half of the cooked gnocchi to the skillet, breaking up any that are stuck together. Cook for several minutes, stirring every once in a while. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add more olive oil to the skillet and repeat with the other batch of gnocchi. 
  • Add the butter to the skillet and cook over medium-high, stirring often, until it is golden brown and toasty, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic slices, red pepper flakes, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and a few sprinkles (or grinds) of pepper, reducing the heat if needed to avoid scorching. 
  • Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of water and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the tomatoes have softened and the liquid has thickened slightly, 4 to 6 minutes. 
  • Add the seared gnocchi and ¼ cup basil (if using), stir to coat, then shake into an even layer. Top with the mozzarella and drizzle lightly with more olive oil, if desired. 
  • Optional: Stick the mixture in the oven (in an oven-proof skillet or other baking dish) and broil the cheese until it’s melted and browned in sports, 2 to 4 minutes. Depending on your tastes, top with more basil, red-pepper flakes, and black pepper. 

Simple Caponata 
Adapted from Everyday Italian

Ingredients
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 medium eggplant, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 14 ½-ounce can diced tomatoes with juices
3 tablespoons raisins
¼ teaspoons dried oregano leaves
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
4 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon drained capers
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

  • In a large, heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over a medium flame, and swirl to coat the pan.
  • Add the celery and saute until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the eggplant and saute until it begins to soften slightly, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the red pepper and cook until it is crisp-tender, approximately 5 minutes. 
  • Add the diced tomatoes with their juices, raisins, and oregano. Simmer over medium-low heat until the flavors blend and the mixture thickens, stirring often, roughly 20 minutes. 
  • Stir in the vinegar, sugar, capers, and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Taste, and adjust the salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with any fresh herbs you have on hand, such as basil or parsley. 

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