Before I get to the recipes, a little “singer” of an introduction — and a warning.
After a scientific three hour Twitter polling process during which I asked whether or not I ought to start food blogging and received ten or so responses, here I am, going, semi-anew, with more frequent food-centric entries as complement to my book-centric and self-indulgent-navel-gazing-existential-ranting entries (Acronym for which is SINGERS. Hah!).
Note to newbies, even when writing about Books and Food, there is likely to be at least a soupcon of Singer-tone. I’ve been singing since I was a child in both the existential-ranting sense as well as on-stages far and wide, big and small — mostly small.
Which brings me to the autodidact-ism issue.
I left high school shortly after I turned 16, left home and was living on my own by 17 — neither of which leavings were entirely voluntary, and since then I have spent a life wandering and wondering, falling into and out of things and occupations, up until a few years ago no matter what else I was doing, I was also always making theatre as performer, director, producer, and for many years as teacher and coach, all without formal training or degree, my methods and madnesses untutored and often unconventional. I used the same naif approach when I was reviewing theatre and writing weekly Rants&Raves columns for an on-line publication.
My approach to work, creating, life, love, joy, is not so much a method as a Meth-head: I invite the energy into me and see what kid of trip it takes me on.
My adventures in cooking are much the same. As I used to tell my acting students and actors; I’m not here to make you into a star; I’m here to share how I became the best me I can be today, and, I hope, give you the courage and example and safe-space to open your doors to yourself to help you find your best you every day — not just on stage, but everywhere.
So, I’m not a chef. I’m not a nutritionist or dietitian or chemist. I’ve no medical background — unless you count the hours I have spent in various doctors’ offices and labs for myself and ferrying around and advocating for others. I do guess at the calories of my recipes as best I can because I’m trying to eat healthier and cleaner so as to maybe, somehow, a little bit, relieve myself of the ever-morphing symptoms of this mystery immune-system malfunction I’ve been struggling with for the past three years — that said, my calorie counts are unscientific guesses. I don’t always use organic or gluten-free, and am far from gourmet or fancy; if I could, I would regularly have sandwiches of Spam or Cheez-Whiz and potato chips, hors d’oeuvres of EasyCheese slathered on Chicken-in-a-Biskit crackers, and — well, you get the picture. My palate is neither sophisticated nor rarefied.
I just cook. Because I love it. I love making things for other people. I love screwing around with recipes and seeing what happens. I’m not here to teach you how to cook, I’m here to share my Meth-heads, inviting the energy of the food and the day into your meals, trusting your gut, and GOING! So, here we are.
Now, enough with the SINGER, on to the cooking!
If I could have pasta and pizza all the time, I would. Alas, I am of an age and a blood pressure that I need to watch my carbs, and since I also live with and cook for a diabetic, I am always searching for less-unhealthy ways to approximate pasta and sauce. Cauliflower, all the rage now, is low in calories and carbs, great for diabetics, and full of vitamin C. And I’ve always liked it. Granted, when growing up it was boiled to mushiness then served with a few slices of yellow cheese slapped on top. But here I am, purportedly a grown-up, and although Velveeta now makes cheese slices which would PERFECTLY complement an over-done head of cauliflower, a fellow has to compromise. So, here’s my take on using a good for you vegetable used to make a not so good for you sauce a bit healthier.
Ingredients: For roasted cauliflower
One medium head cauliflower broken into florets
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled divided into rounds
4-8 garlic cloves (up to you) peeled, crushed, & chopped
pinch red pepper
two dashes black pepper
thyme – I used dried because I had no fresh, used about 3 tsp
Ingredients for sautéed mushrooms
12-16 ounces cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced
splash of olive oil
salt and pepper
Italian Seasoning — maybe a tablespoon, I just throw it in till I feel like stopping
¼ cup red wine
Ingredients for completing marinara
28oz can tomato sauce
14.5oz can of fire roasted diced tomatoes
2 cups liquid (I used 1 cup chicken broth, 1 cup beef bone broth because that’s what was in my pantry)
½ tsp anchovy paste
2 tsp double concentrate tomato paste
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
1 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp oregano
3 tsp basil
1 tbs Italian seasoning
ROASTING THE CAULIFLOWER
Set oven to 400 degrees.
Gently separate the cauliflower into florets, putting florets in colander, wash them thoroughly.
Peel your garlic cloves, smash under blade of chef’s knife, then chop well. I used 8 garlic cloves today. Some days, depending on who it is I’m cooking for I might use more or less. You know how much garlic you and yours like, so use your cooking intuition.
Peel 2 medium onions, slice and break into rounds as if you were going to make onion rings.
In a largish bowl combine olive oil, red pepper, salt, and thyme. Whisk well. Empty the cauliflower, garlic, and onions into the bowl and toss until everything is beautifully coated. The aroma will already have you in near ecstasy and we haven’t even put it in the oven yet.
You can now either use a baking sheet covered in parchment paper, or a nice lasagna size casserole which is what I did because I love my Martha Stewart cookware. It’s a thing. Now put it in the 400 degree oven and let it roast for 30 minutes, then get it out and flip it around, and put it back in oven for another 15 to 30 minutes depending on your oven and how roasted brown you like your cauliflower.
WHY ROAST THE CAULIFLOWER? I’ll tell you why I decided to do so for this recipe; because I am a meat-lover trying to heal myself of my addiction to the flesh (This could go any number of ways ugly at any second, but I’ll try to control myself — which is becoming a theme, yes? Damn getting older.) I wanted to bring out the deepest flavor in the cauliflower, a richness and almost sweet earthiness that comes with roasting it along with the onions and garlic, creating a really savory flavor with lots of layers. Honestly, once I got this out of the oven, I could just have served this as a main course it was so delicious. You might try that!
MEANWHILE THE CREMINIS
As the cauliflower is roasting, it’s time to saute the mushrooms. Begin, of course, by washing them, then slicing them nicely into flat mushroomy looking flats. Put a nice splash of olive oil into a skillet large enough to put all the mushrooms in one layer and have the skillet on medium heat. I sprinkle the shrooms with salt, pepper, and some Italian seasoning — again, you know how much seasoning you like, so use your own judgement and imagination — try other spices, experiment. Cooking should be fun, an adventure. And honestly, it’s not that easy to ruin food — you have to really try. Many of my experiments have turned out less than delicious, but, they were almost all edible — with the exception of a very unfortunate sweet potato pie where I accidentally used gravy instead of sweet potato in the filling, don’t ask — and trial and error is how we learn almost everything in life. You have to be hands on, reading about it just isn’t the same — take sex for example. What? Oh, right, wrong blogging category. I’ll catch you up later. Where was I?
Right, okay, the mushrooms are now sauteing, and eventually it will be time to add the wine. How will you know when it’s time? I’ll tell you. The mushrooms will begin to soften, and after a bit, maybe ten minutes or so of being gently stirred and warmed and tossed, they will begin to sweat, and release their liquid essence into the pan, at which point you’ll know you’ve successfully exhausted them, you’ve both gotten what you’ve wanted, and it’s time for a drink. Pour in the wine. And, although I’m not a day drinker, or, even, for the most part, a night drinker, I wouldn’t judge you if you had a little nip yourself. You’re bigger than a mushroom, so have more than a quarter cup.
Now, you want to leave the mushrooms wallowing in the wine until they’ve sucked it all up. This doesn’t take long, maybe ten minutes. Watch carefully though, you want to catch them JUST when the pan is dry, don’t let them cook a second longer than that moment of total absorption.
FINISHING THE MARINARA
Okay, so, the mushrooms are drunk and the cauliflower is full-on roasted with its buddies, onion and garlic. What have you been doing while the mushrooms were sauteing and the cauliflower roasting? You’ve been filling a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients listed above under Ingredients For Completing Marinara. Now, let me explain what I used and why.
HOW I CHOOSE INGREDIENTS FOR MY CREATIONS
I live on a pretty tight budget, so when staples I know I am going to someday use go on sale, I buy them. My pantry always has a collection of canned tomato products, from sauces to diced to crushed to flavored to paste to whatever I’ve found on sale and had some extra budget for at one of the seven grocery stores from which I peruse flyers and which I regularly visit looking for unadvertised specials; Giant Eagle, Safeway, Food Lion, Weis, Giant, Aldi’s, and I am ashamed and sorry to admit, WalMart. I used to shop now and then at Wegman’s until that unpleasant New Year’s Eve incident where they sent the police to my house, after which I have boycotted them — and, well, they stopped mailing me circulars, too, so it seemed best. In any event, I chose today’s tomato products from that collection — you can easily use others, whatever you have, whatever you like — hell, were it farmers’ market season I’d have used fresh tomatoes.
As far as the two cups of liquid — that too was arbitrary. I could just as well have used vegetable broth, or my own chicken stock which I have some of in the freezer, or water. It’s up to you and about what you like, how closely you watch your sodium, if you’re vegan, etcetera. Your choice. Too, you might want to use more liquid than I did. I happen to like my marinara very thick so that it’s almost a chili-like texture, but if you want it to go further, to be a thinner consistency, again — this is YOUR dish once you start making it. I’m sharing my version, you should have your own.
And speaking of my version, the anchovy paste. I happen to LOVE anchovies but I know lots of people don’t. In fact, some of the people who were here tonight for dinner claim to hate anchovies. So, I didn’t tell them the ingredients. Here’s the thing, the balsamic vinegar works in conjunction with the anchovies to give the sauce a bite, a little kick, an acid-y sort of “OH MY HEAVENS THAT IS AMAZING” kind of sensation without having an actual anchovy-ish taste. But, if you don’t want to buy anchovy paste, I get it, so don’t use it, but if you don’t use the anchovy paste, I wouldn’t use the balsamic vinegar either.
Now, you’ve dumped all this into the pan, add the roasted cauliflower, onion, and garlic, toss in the drunken mushrooms, and do some mashing. I did it with a holey spoon but a potato masher would work just as well. I suppose some people would use an immersion blender to make a smoother sauce, but I wanted a texture to better approximate the feel of a meaty sauce. And, it worked.
So, turn the burner on medium and let the sauce come to a boil and then immediately turn heat down to the very lowest simmer and let it cook for hours. I left mine on for six hours before we ate but either more or less would be fine. Just know, the reason for roasting the cauliflower and sauteing the mushrooms in wine, and using different flavors of liquid, various pastes and spices, is to create really deep and cooperating layers of flavor, and the longer the sauce simmers, the more intense and wedded the flavors, all those parts becoming a beautiful and delicious new whole.
My ingredients yielded about 8 cups of sauce.
DINNER IS SERVED
So, it’s time to serve the sauce. On what? Well, I used spaghetti squash because — much as I’d like to — I can’t have pasta every day. Or, in fact, lately, ANY day. And the spaghetti squash was fine. Easy to do. Cut it in half. Scoop out the seeds. Rub with olive oil and sprinkle with oregano. Turn cut side down in roasting pan (I used the same one in which I’d roasted cauliflower) and put in 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes to an hour. Check it after 30, ovens vary wildly. Too, you can pour some water in the bottom of the pan, it steams it some and makes it softer. Once you get it out of oven and scrape it from shell into a bowl, feel free to throw in a little yogurt butter and some spice of your choosing — maybe just a little salt, that’s all I added today since the marinara was so flavorful, and toss well.
I served a cup of spaghetti squash next to a cup of the sauce and by my surely flawed count, this was about 250 – 300 calories total. And delicious. Really, really good. I also served a salad of romaine, strips of cucumber, tomato wedges, and cantaloupe, all garnished with chopped, fresh basil, and in one corner, a tablespoon of pesto, and in another corner, a tablespoon of ranch dressing. Pretty tasty and a nice, refreshing complement to the richness of the sauce.
AND I MADE IT!
By which I mean, I made this recipe, I made this dinner, and I made it through my first formal cooking blog. Thanks for sticking with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, I hope if you try this recipe you’ll love it as much as I did, and I hope — most of all — you’ll be emboldened to try your own experiments and cook from the heart.
And now, here I am, going.