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Braising the Beast: Slow Cooking the Pork Shoulder Medallion

After yesterday’s grand adventure of getting out of bed following the flu, my marinated pork shoulder medallion was ready to be braised. I was hungry.

I took out the bag with the hefty pork medallion and through the plastic I could see the chunks of garlic, bright shreds of orange peel and pools of gleaming olive oil, it looked so inviting. I knew this was going to be a great dinner.

I rummaged through the vegetable bin and it was mostly empty save lots of unopened packs of bacon, 3 very strong Spanish yellow onions and the bottom, seedy half of a butternut squash. I decided to save the bacon for later and started cooking.

I lifted the pork from the bag, scraping off the fragrant marinade as I went, dried it a bit and seasoned it heavily with salt and pepper. In my 5 quart enameled Dutch oven I browned the pork until it achieved a deep brown on all sides. I started the browning with a spoonful of duck fat but the pork has such a thick layer of luscious creamy fat that it didn’t take much to render a good inch of fat during the browning process.

I removed the browned pork onto a platter and poured off the fat. Seemed such a shame to toss it but I would rather not eat it especially given the recent state of my stomach.

The pot had lots of lovely browned, stuck on bits so I added the chicken stock that I purchased from the butcher (sadly I was out of homemade and hadn’t roasted a chicken in ages, my empty freezer keened over the loss). While the stock was heating up I added in a cutting board full of chopped onions, salt and pepper, a fresh bay leaf, all of the marinade from the plastic bag I could scrape out and a slosh of balsamic vinegar. The pork went in the pot next, almost submerged in the savory broth, and the top to the Dutch oven went on. I slid the pot into what is quaintly called a slow oven, in modern kitchens this is between 300-325 F.

I set the timer on my phone for 2 hours and went to bed with the phone right next to my more clear ear and conked out solidly.

A lovely nap later and a cup of tea, I peeled and seeded the hunk of butternut squash and cut it into large dice. I added them to the Dutch oven, making sure the pork shoulder was still cozy and covered with the braising liquid.


It looked pretty good to me.

It went back in the oven for another 45 minutes, which gave me enough time to have a steamy shower and to tidy up the kitchen with my hair wrapped up turban-style. I really wanted a caftan to wear but that was not to be.

When the timer went off again I removed the merrily bubbling pot from the oven and gave myself a brief sauna when I opened the Dutch oven lid. I think it smelled good, my poor nose is pretty malfunctional. I tasted the squash and it was perfectly tender, meltingly so. The pork was extremely tender but still holding its shape.

The thick layer of porky fat on the medallion had given off so much fat that there must have been a good cup and a half of it floating on top of the pot. I was planning on removing the meat to let it rest and add orzo to the pot to soak up the savory broth and with the squash become the most delicious pasta base for chunks of the tender pork. I just knew that I really needed to chill off the braising liquid to remove this fat, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the dish.

With a heavy heart and an empty stomach I removed the pork and then, with a slotted spoon, removed the creamy onions and butternut squash pieces to a storage bowl. I poured the broth and fat into a tub and marveled at the thick layer that already began to separate from the broth. I slid the tub of broth into the freezer and put away the pork to chill in the fridge and then ordered a pizza. It was a perfectly fine pizza and the salad was excellent, but I wished it was the next day. I know though that this dish will taste even better the next night.

Tomorrow, the finish…


Emerging from Being Under the Weather and the Joy of a Meat CSA

I’ve been under the weather for almost three weeks now, the flu had me in a tight grip like a siren holding me fast under a turbulent sea. There’s nothing one can do except hunker down and hope it goes away.

Copious amounts of tea, water, aspirin, cough syrup and half dozen boxes of tissues and throat lozenges have been used up and now I’m left with a sinus and ear infection that has me feeling like an alien in a fish bowl. It is, however, a bit of an improvement and after eating a bland dish of pasta I started to feel slightly perky.

With this little bit of energy I pulled out a pork shoulder medallion I received in this month’s meat CSA from 4505 Meats. I froze all of the goodies from my CSA bag with the exception of this medallion and the chicken, Campari and apple sausages that I cooked up and nibbled on during the week. I have also been living on a large tub of chicken stock from the shop, reheated and sipped with a sprinkle of salt for each meal. (I will write more about the meat CSA and how to join at another time.)

Tonight, after I rinsed off my dinner dishes, I removed the large slab of pork with its rich layer of creamy pork fat and all tied up nicely with twine, and slid it into a bag for marinating. There’s not much left in the Roost since I haven’t shopped for ages but I do have garlic, a softening Cara Cara orange and lots of spices.

I roughed up the garlic and used my julienne peeler to zest the orange, put in a teaspoonful of cumin seeds and a few dried California bay leaves in the bag with the pork and a slosh of olive oil purloined from the Fancy Food Show. I pressed out as much air as I could from the bag, gave the pork a brief massage, bunged it in the fridge.

The fever has me craving all kinds of things, like cool fruit juices, milkshakes and Rhine ice wine, but today a dear friend brought me a salted caramel milkshake and a hilarious “this is what a pie-shake does to two bouncy eight year old boys” show and a rather fun sing-a-long with a yodeling pickle. I swear that this bit of hilarity really made me feel so much better. Of course I slept for for hours after they left, but here I was, puttering lopsidedly in the kitchen. But cold, sweet fruit juice, how I want some so badly, it’s been 19 months since I’ve had any.

I looked at that denuded orange sitting on the cutting mat and juiced it and decided to try drinking it. It looked so pretty, Cara Cara oranges look like pink grapefruits inside and are so lovely and sweet. Maybe it’s this flu or that I can’t barely taste anything or maybe, dare I hope?, my food intolerances are easing, because I drank that shimmering pink juice and didn’t feel any nasty tingling or bee sting feelings at all. It surely was a satisfying little glass of juice!

So back to bed I go, tomorrow is another day. I’ll figure out how to braise the pork medallion in the morning.

Posole, Chicos!

Last year or so when visiting Santa Fe, the other city that holds my heart, my dear pal L___ and I visited the farmer’s market. Coming from SF farmers markets are a favorite haunt, but here in SFe they are not common. In fact, this was the first one, ever. Can you imagine? They had a spanking brand new building just for the market, and a new outdoor concrete apron for more stalls, along side the historic tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway, now used by the Santa Fe Southern line.

(update: this was the first season of the farmer’s market in their new building. SFe is such a cool place, they have had farmers markets since the ’60s. Thanks, L___, for researching this for me!)

It was Fall and the few stalls there were bursting with the bounty of the season: apples, potatoes, and corn. One stall in particular was fascinating. A wizened Indian man and his wife were selling their produce. He pulled out his well-worn Buck knife and carved off succulent pieces of his apples, very imperfect apples but so juicy and sweet. They had been planted on his land a long time ago and were nearing their end. We got to chatting, it wasn’t very busy, and I picked up a bag of dried corn. I asked him, “What do you make with this?”, and he looked surprised. “They’re chicos!” he said, as if *everyone* knew this and that explained everything. I smiled and told him I was from SF and we had hominy there but not chicos. He didn’t know about hominy, but after I described it, he smiled and said, “Oh, posole…”.

(inside the farmer’s market)

I bought a bag of chicos, and a bunch of apples, and then he told me that the chicos were from corn he grew himself. I munched an apple and listened, enraptured. His farm used water diverted from a tributary of the Rio Grande, he was lucky, he had water most of the year. He planted corn, and when it was ripe he cut it and laid it out in the field to dry a bit. Then, he dug a large pit and filled it with piñon branches and set them alight.

Piñon is the best smelling wood on the planet and they regularly shed branches in the harsh winters so it seems that everyone has a bounteous supply without killing off the piñon “forests”. It also burns fast and hot, and makes gorgeous glowing embers.

The farmer then laid sheets of corregated metal over the coals. Then, a layer of burlap went on, and the corn ears on top. More burlap and the whole thing was covered up with earth, like a big corn luau.

The next day or so, when the coals had burned out, the now dried and smoked corn was unearthed. At his leisure, sitting in some shade over an oilcloth, he would rub the dried cobs against each other to release the kernels from the cob. The cobs were used for fuel and the chicos were ready to be stored. He said this is always how they dried the corn and I just wonder how many generations back this process had been repeated. I had a sudden image of a man like this kind soul, sitting in the shade of a hogan, singing and rubbing corn. New Mexico does things to you, everywhere you look you see the spirits from hundreds of years ago suddenly standing near you, or you sense them from a whiff of smoke from a long extinguished fire.

I also purchased dried beans, snake beans he called them, I’ve seen something similar here from Rancho Gordo called rattlesnake beans. The farmers wife rummaged around in a box under their folding table and pulled out a little slip of paper with her posole recipe and handed it to me with a smile. “It’s good,” she said, “just simple food.”

Later during my stay, L___ made me her posole, which was so delicious. We started dinner a bit late and watched silly movies and ate way too many blue corn tortillas with locally made chipotle salsa waiting for the soup to finish. Cooking at high elevations also requires longer cooking times so it must have been 10:00 pm before we had dinner, but what a dinner it was and it was fantastic to slurp such good soup made by a friend.

Alas, I had to head home. Another souvenir I brought back was an ice cream pint container filled with mild fire-roasted Hatch green chile. I froze it before heading home and triple-wrapped it in plastic and nestled everything in my suitcase. Despite a five hour delay on the way home the chiles were still mostly frozen and had not leaked! I have been rationing them like gold and had just a half-cup left.

So, yesterday, while rummaging through my pantry I found the chicos and beans and realized I really needed some posole, despite the warming weather. It never really gets all that warm here anyway, with a few rare handful of days, and I enjoy soups and stews any time, even for breakfast!

Before I went to bed I set the beans and chicos to soak. This morning I drained and rinsed them and popped them into my crockpot. I had also thawed the chiles and two humongous Dakota smoked sausages from Lockeford. Sadly, there was no pork in the freezer but I had chicken breasts.

I wasn’t exactly following the farmer’s wife’s recipe with the sausage and chicken, and I add a bunch more things to jazz up the posole, so I hope she (and you) forgive me for the embellishments.

A strong Spanish onion was halved and sliced, a few carrots and celery ribs were dispatched, and the chicken cubed up and added to the pot. The green chile and their gooey juice were poured in, half of one of the humongo sausages and a couple winter tomates were diced for general purposes. The seasonings went in next: garlic, oregano, salt, bay leaf, black pepper. Then 8 cups of chicken broth were poured over all, I put the lid on and remembered to turn the thing on (for a change!) and went for a walk in the balmy sunshine.

When I came home the posole was coming along but the beans weren’t tender yet so I endured the incredible scents wafting from the kitchen rather ill-humoredly until 7:30 pm when everything was finally ready.

Everything was meltingly tender, including the chicken, which was not dry, by the way. I ladeled up a bowl, added a handful of cilantro and a diced avocado and dug in. The chiles were just perfectly warm, like sunshine in your mouth. The chicos were chewy and slightly smokey with a distinct corniness. I love these beans too, they retained faint pink spots from their former ruby dappled marks and were so creamy. The broth was divine, the best part, rich and spicy without being hot with the fresh bite of the cilantro and a cool unctous bite of avocado.

I almost forgot the sounds of the traffic outside and the hissing of the radiator and thought I heard that vast silence of the high desert, silent except for the singsong of coyotes and the loud flapping of the ravens flying overhead. It was a bowl of home, or rather a home I long to have.

REC: Heather in SF/SFe Posole.

1/2 c chicos or posole or hominy
1/2 c dried beans (I used rattlesnake beans but pintos or white beans would be good instead)
2 T salt
12 cups of water

2 chicken breasts, cubed, and 8 oz smoked sausage (kilbasa), sliced
— or —
2 boneless pork chops, cubed
1 T olive oil
1 Spanish or red onion, halved, then sliced
3 carrots and 2 celery ribs, halved and sliced
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 c Hatch mild green chile, or 1 small can mild Ortega chiles, or hotter chile – to your preference
1/2 tsp Mexican rubbed oregano
A few grinds of black pepper (I used ___ lavender pepper)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
8 c chicken broth

1 bunch of cilantro
2 avocados, halved, seeded, diced then scooped out of the shell with a spoon
1 lime, cut into sections

In a large bowl pour in the chicos, beans, salt and water and let soak overnight. Drain and rinse.

In a small skillet sauté chicken breasts in the olive oil with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

In a crock pot, place soaked beans and corn, then meats, vegetables, herbs, spices and broth. Turn on high and cook 4 hours or until beans and corn are tender.

If you aren’t using a crock pot, then in a soup pot sauté the chicken as above and then remove. Add vegetables and sauté briefly with a bit of salt and pepper. Add herbs and spices, the meats, the beans and corn and broth. Cover and simmer for 60 – 90 minutes or until the beans and corn are tender.

Ladle the soup into each person’s bowl, top the soup with a handful of cilantro leaves and a mound of avocado. Add a squeeze of lime and serve.

Serves 6

If you want more of a stew, increase the beans and corn to 1 cup each. I’m more of a brothy girl myself.

Technically, posole is both a soup and the ingredient used in the stew, e.g., corn kernels soaked in lye and then dried. Hominy is a Mexican preparation and has a softer consistency. Posole corn can be hard to find outside of New Mexico and I have never seen chicos outside of the Santa Fe farmer’s market, so the dried hominy is a great substitute. But if you ever see posole or chicos for sale, snap them up!

(the piñon forest, do you see why I miss Santa Fe?)

Paella: A Plate of Love

When I come to my parents for a visit, however brief, I know that mOm will be cooking up something special. Isn’t that what family visits are all about, good food shared with great company?

paella 2

For years, mOm has been torturing me with tales of her paella. We both have had friends that visited Spain and brought us back the best souvenir: glimmering, fat jars of saffron threads. Add to that great sources for smoked paprika, local chorizo, and seafood from the Bay Area, it all bodes well for a great dinner. For this night, mOm said she was just doing a little “motherly-type cooking”.  To me it’s anything but, it’s a plate of love!

On the way up to the country, my pal L___ and I popped in to the fun Michael~David winery in Lodi to stretch our and the puppy’s legs and to grab some great wine. Besides the amazing local cheese (Modesto), lavender spray and blueberry pie (from the winery’s family farm, the Phillip Farm) we totally scored with a case of Viogner, their Enigma 2006. Dry and crisp but heavy on the pineapple, pear and a touch of spice, this was the perfect wine with which to cook (and sip with) paella.

A tour of the living room and meet King-dog:

On our last night of our brief visit, it was paella night!!!  I played sous chef and chopped up various veggies, seafood and measured out wine (one cup for the paella, one cup for me) and so on, gently being cautioned not to cut my fingers off (really, mOm – love you!) and my perpetual reminders right back to wear an apron and take off the good jewelry, we really worked together seamlessly.


I love cooking with my mom, hearing stories about the recipes and family history, sharing tips we have gleaned from the net and the thousand cookbooks we devour regularly, and stories from around the small town that is now my parents home. City folk through and through, living in a small township has been quite a change for my parents, and one they have delighted in so many ways. The tales of the country are always so fun, like the time where a neighbor’s bull broke free from his pasture and ended up in Mom’s “back 40” and whiled away the afternoon eating Mom’s pears and mooing loudly. Or the colorful handyman characters who appear at the back door to ask for work, presumably when their cash runs low, but always leaving a tool or something behind, shades of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Or, that in the country, one only goes to the front door if they are a utilities worker, the UPS driver or there has been a sadness in the family, ergo it’s best not to sit in the family room in your PJ’s after 9:00 am!

Despite all the chatter, we do actually get work done in the kitchen, omitting the multiple times dinner has been quite late whilst my dad waits patiently in the family room, listening to the classical station and very often singing along. On this night, mOm kindly let me film her making her paella, even posing the ingredients just do for the camera (see below for the video!). She is a food blogger’s mom, through and through!

The local butcher did not have the smoked salmon sausages mOm usually uses in her San Francisco-created paella, but he had a great selection of Echo Falls hot smoked salmon that would provide the necessary flavor. The zippy local chorizo was excellent, as was the fresh salmon steak that was deftly skinned and deboned and chunked up. No other fresh seafood was available this day (small township, remember?) sadly, but the well stocked auxiliary freezer produced plump prawns that were quickly thawed and drained on toweling. To add a little more variety in the protein department, fresh chicken thighs were added to the chopping board. A decent store-bought chicken broth was liberally sprinkled with russet saffron threads to infuse the broth, what a delicious aroma!

shrimp collage
(quick thaw your prawns by a soak in cold water for 5 minutes, then drain on paper toweling for 5 minutes)

The spanking brand new paella pan was christened with Bay Area olive oil from Bariani, then kissed with onions and garlic. After a brief doe-see-doe, sweet red and green bells were added to soften, then surprisingly ripe and juicy plum tomatoes danced in the pan. The star of the show was stirred in to the softened vegetal mass, Arborio rice this time. After a few slow, figure-eight swirls of the spatula, the aforementioned wine and broth, now shaded a lively orange from the saffron, were stirred in for a few minutes. Finally, the chicken and sausage were sprinkled in and pushed into the fragrant and soupy rice mixture. A bit later the prawns were plopped in, then even later the smoked salmon and fat sweet peas. One is supposed to let the rice simmer mostly undisturbed and to let it form a highly coveted crunchy crust on the bottom, but the pan was on its maiden voyage and the glass-topped stove is still a bit tricky to control at a low temperature. So we chatted, and stirred, and chatted some more, joined by the King-a-ling and my dear pal L___ and the man of the house. I just love it when every occupant of the house finds their way into the cozy, steamy kitchen that’s barely built for two, let alone five (if you count the 80 lb pooch, which of course we do, as he’s such a personality).

Finally, the paella was ready, the plump rice had absorbed the luscious juices from the vegetables, meats and broth and was ever so slightly chewy and yet tender. A quick dash to the terrace for a handful of parsley that miraculously survived the snowfall before Christmas and it was  roughly chopped and strewn upon the surface of the now deep yellow rice.  mOm topped off the steaming pan of paella with a sprinkle of sweet smoked Spanish paprika. It’s magical stuff really, just sprinkle some on your scrambled eggs one morning and you will never think eggs are boring again.

Triumphantly, the paella was paraded to the family room dining table, which was lit with fat white candles and set with the Royal Evesham Gold service, another souvenir from a lovely vacation in Great Britain years ago.

paella 1a modest portionthe evidence
(does your family count the shrimp tails after dinner? mine does, hee hee)

We dove into the pan, heaping piles of paella on each other’s plates, counting the prawn and chorizo allotment per person, joshing and ribbing each other, and toasting the cook, her helpers, tasters and for any other reason we could think of along the way.

The best part was, as we prepared to leave the next morning, mOm said casually, “I packed some paella for your dinner tonight…” Later, home alone and feeling quite blue, I remembered the bag I shoved in the fridge and heated up a full pound of mOm’s paella love, and for a few minutes I felt like we were all together around the table again, having fun and enjoying time together.

See how she made the paella here:

REC: mOm’s Paella Love

6 T Olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 red/green/yellow bell peppers, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 1/2 c. rice, Arborio or Carnaroli are good
1 c. dry white wine
5 c. chicken broth
1/4 tsp. saffron threads
Bay leaf
1 chorizo sausage, cooked, cut into chunks
4 links smoked salmon sausage, cut into 1″ pieces (or substitute a fresh salmon steak or fillet, cut into 1″ pieces and 1/4 lb hot smoked salmon, flakes into large chunks)
1 large chicken thigh, skinned, boned, cut into 1″ pieces
1 # Prawns, cleaned and peeled
1 c. frozen peas
1/4 c. flat leaf parsley
Smoked paprika
(1 1/4 # cooked lobster, cut into chunks)
(1 1/2 doz mussels, scrubbed well, beards removed)
(1 dozen clams, well scrubbed)
(1/2 # sea scallops)
Salt & pepper

Heat olive oil in a large skillet or paella pan, sauté onions and garlic until tender. Add peppers and sauté ~5 minutes. Mix in tomatoes and cook 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle saffron into chicken broth. Add rice to skillet and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add wine, broth and bay leaf, salt and pepper, stir well, simmer on medium low heat for 5 minutes.

Stir in seafood, (except smoked salmon, if using) sausages and chicken. Stir occasionally and cook until the liquid is absorbed and seafood and meats are cooked through (and clams and mussels are open). Approximate rice cooking time is 15-20 min from the point where the broth is added to the rice mixture.

5 minutes before this, add peas (and smoked salmon), gently fold in (to avoid breaking up the salmon).

Before serving, sprinkle on chopped parsley, smoked paprika, decorate with lemon wedges.

Serves 6.

We served this with a wonderful wine from New Mexico! Casa Rondena’s winery is located in Los Rancho de Albuquerque, and their winemaker and founder John Calvin makes delicious wines grown on the banks of the Rio Grande. L___ and I discovered the winery during our epic A Dog and Two Chicks on Route 66 road trip.  During that trip I became a member of their wine club and this year won their member contest of a case of mixed wine! It was so exciting as I have never won anything before. The wine we enjoyed with the paella was their ’06 Clarion, a Gold Medal winner, and is mostly Syrah with some Tempranillo and a little Cabernet Sauvignon.  Rich and smooth and a bit spicy, it was a perfect foil to the unctuous rice and saffron, spicy sausage and smokey seafood flavors.  Sadly we finished the bottle quickly but happily I have another at home along with a wealth of others to enjoy.  (Thank you John and Vicky for the treat!)

And, thank you mOm, Dad, and L___ for the lovely trip, and especially to mOm for the paella love!

Mmmmmac’N Cheese – and – Bechamel Mucho

Mac And Cheese Bake on Foodista

There are few things more heavenly than a creamy casserole of mac’n’cheese fresh out of the oven, then dipping through a buttery crunchy crust through meltingly soft tomato slices to the oozy tangy cheesiness below. Heavens! I think I need a moment!

There, now that I’m (ahem) more composed, I can tell you that I am not talking about your mom’s mac’n’cheese or the little blue box, or even the little organic bunny box, although I must say I’m quite fond of those too. Seriously, who doesn’t have a box in the cupboard for those emergency situations where the most energy you can expend is to open another bottle of wine, gaze in the empty wallet hoping for enough coin for takeout, sigh heavily, and then perk up knowing there’s mac’n’cheese in the pantry.

But on those nights when you do have some actual food in the fridge and a little bit of time (but not much is needed, mind you), you can make your own and it’s so much better. It’s almost transcendent.

It pains me to see people at Whole Paycheck or elsewhere buying premade mac’n’cheese. I feel like asking them, “Seriously? You’re going to spend $8 on *that*?” It really makes me want to bully myself into their kitchen, give them a glass of wine and a notepad and say, “Watch me”.

When my friends who don’t cook ask me if I could show them something simple to make at home, I reach for this recipe.

And it’s not really a recipe, more of a technique really: a bechamel or white sauce, with cheese folded into cooked pasta, and a nice crunchy topping.

Once you know how to make one of the Mother Sauces like a bechamel, then it is so easy to expand upon it and make many other delicious and easy things:

– add cooked chicken, peas, red peppers and serve over toast for Chicken á la King.

– add cheese and serve over broccoli or cauliflower. Even fussy kids will vegetables under a velvety cloak of cheese sauce.

– combine with any cooked veggie and run under the broiler for a quick gratin. No one would ever guess it is leftovers!

– make with broth and a little white wine instead of milk, add cooked chicken, veggies and top with biscuits for an amazing pot pie. This is suggested in the event you don’t have access to my mom’s amazing turkey gravy, like me most of the year (alas). Please see my earlier post for the pot pie recipe.

Making an excellent Bechamel is not rocket science, mind you. It’s what every good cook up until the 60’s knew but somehow most people these days either didn’t learn this at home or they just forgot how good it tastes. Or, more commonly, the idea of anything with milk and butter in the ingredient list has been sent to purgatory. Sadly, a white sauce is not diet food but if you use lowfat milk it can still be quite lovely, and then you only have four tablespoons of butter to feel guilty about, *but* that’s for the entire dish. Now, who in their right mind could possibly feel guilty about one tablespoon of butter in a meal?

Of course adding lots of cheese and buttery breadcrumbs is a slightly different story on the guilt ranks, but *whatever*!! Enjoy your meal, it’s not like you eat this every night, right? Well, hmmm… Don’t answer that! Hee hee.

But getting back to this technique, making a Bechamel or white sauce is pretty basic, unless you are my mom. My dear mom has elevated the basic white sauce with a few simple steps. A dish with her Bechamel will hands down taste better than anyone else’s dish made with a “white sauce”.

Her secret is simple:

My Mom’s Bechamel:

4 Tbl butter, I like unsalted
4 Tbl flour
2 c milk, warmed
1/2 medium onion, studded with 4 – 6 whole cloves
A bay leaf
A few grains cayenne pepper
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt, up to 1 tsp
White pepper, a dash or to taste

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter until it foams, then add the flour and stir with a whisk for 2 to 3 minutes. This is the roux.

Remove the pan from the heat for a moment, and slowly whisk in the warmed milk, whisking continuously, until all of it has been added to the saucepan. Whisk until smooth, no lumps, and then return to the heat.

Stirring occasionally, bring the sauce to a boil, then turn the heat to low, you want a bare simmer. Add the onion, bay leaf, salt, pepper, cayenne and nutmeg.

Let simmer on low for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste again for salt and pepper. Sometimes it’s nice to add a drop of lemon juice. Fish out the onion and the bay leaf, count the cloves and if necessary fish them out with a fork. Be sure to lick the fork, mmmm!

Isn’t that the tastiest white sauce ever? Thank you mOm, for giving me such a leg up on life with this simple recipe.

Once you taste this, you too will sing, “Bechamel, Bechamel mucho….”


Now that you know how to make the best Bechamel, it is so easy to make a luscious mac’n’cheese.

My recipe was inspired by Ina Garten’s, because her tomato idea in the topping is just too brilliant. I do realize to many people this is heresy. Please try it though, unless you loathe tomatoes, because it really adds a lovely touch to the flavor and it looks so pretty, which is important for such a humble dish.

Mac’N’Cheese with HAL’s Variants

1 pound elbow or penne pasta

4 c milk, heated
1 stick butter
1/2 c flour
1/2 medium onion, studded with 4-6 cloves
bay leaf
few grains cayenne or Aleppo pepper
1/8 tsp dry mustard

12 oz Swiss cheese, preferrably Gruyere, grated (4 cups)
8 oz cheddar, extra sharp, grated (2 cups) Note: you can use any combination of cheese, including blue, goat, Gouda, just as long as you have some good sharp cheddar and Gruyere which provide the necessary tang and flavor notes for mac’n’cheese.

1/2 tsp pepper (or less)
1 T salt
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 # tomatoes (4) sliced
2 T butter
1 1/2 c fresh bread crumbs (or Panko)
1/2 c Parmesan, grated
1/4 c. chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 375.

As per the Bechamel directions above, make a roux with butter and flour, cook 3 minutes, then add hot milk, whisking until smooth. Bring to a boil and add clove studded onion, bay leaf, dry mustard and simmer on low, very slowly, for 20-30 minutes. Remove onion and bay leaf, make sure all cloves are removed as well. Add pepper, nutmeg and slowly stir in cheese until melted, do not boil. Taste for salt and add up to 1 T if needed.

Meanwhile, cook pasta 2 minutes less than package directions say and drain. Place in a large bowl.

Toss pasta gently with cheese sauce, pour into a casserole (or smaller casseroles). Top with sliced tomatoes.

Mix together bread crumbs, butter, parsley and sprinkle over pasta. Sprinkle on the Parmesan.

(oops, I forgot the parsley this time. I also like to add a grind of fresh pepper.)

Bake 20-35 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.

Allegedly, a pound of pasta serves 6-8, wow! Not in my house. Usually I put these into individual ramekins and smaller casseroles, like my darling flame red stoneware set from Le Crueset (thanks Rats!).


In case you want to jazz it up a bit, here is a variant:

Saute a pound of crimini mushrooms (or any combination of wild and/or cultivated mushrooms) on med-high heat until golden brown (don’t crowd pan), in 1/4 stick butter. Season with salt and pepper and reserve.

When pasta is cooked, toss with 1 T truffle oil, then add the cooked mushrooms.

Make the recipe for cheese sauce as above and follow the rest of the directions.

Yet another variant, my personal favorite:

Cook 1/2 pound diced bacon until browned and crisp.

When pasta is cooked and drained, toss with 1 T truffle oil. Add cooked bacon and mix well.

Make the recipe for cheese sauce as above and follow the rest of the directions.

I have made this a few times as a command performance, such as when a dear friend was having a bad day and needed an oasis moment of comfort here at the Roost. But recently a new acquaintence through Twitter asked if he too could try my mac’n’cheese as he hadn’t had a home-cooked meal in a long time. Well, of course I would do this for him, but did I mention he’s a professional chef? Actually, he’s the Executive Chef of a very popular restaurant, *and* he makes possibly the best mac’n’cheese with truffle oil and bacon I have ever tasted? Gulp! All I can say is that my mac’n’cheese tastes really great to me, and to my lay-friends, so hopefully Chef will enjoy my humble offering with all the love and TLC I put into each ramekin.

My Idea of Health Food… Easy Steak Tacos

I have finally caught this flu tiger by the tail and am feeling much better. And, I am feeling hungry! Hunger is such a good feeling, it is your body’s way of saying, “I am ready to be fueled now, I have things to do, so get in that kitchen and cook me something, woman!” And I am happy to comply.

My debut to real food was this simple taco dish for Sunday supper.

(Doesn’t this make you hungry too?)

A dear friend G___ took me grocery shopping Saturday and it was a big outing for me. A highlight, besides a fridge full of lovely healthy food, was seeing the two firetrucks full of handsome firemen shopping for the week. They were like a horde of hunky locusts clearing the store of all comestibles. I was glad to have hit the beef and produce sections before they swept through. This great taco recipe is sure to please even a hungry hero after a long days work, and I am sure you will be happily stuffed too.

Easy Steak Tacos

Marinated flank steak (see below)
Cherry tomato salsa (see below)
Small corn or flour tortillas or taco shells (I like blue corn tortillas, when I can find them, or multigrain olive oil tortillas)
2 limes, cut into wedges
Grated cheddar cheese (optional)
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
Taco sauce (optional)
Sour cream (optional)

For the Steak:
1 flank steak
1 Tbl chile powder (I like New Mexico Sweet chiles cause I’m a heat-wimp)
1 Tbl ground cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 Tbl olive oil
2 Tbl red wine winegar

Rub the flank steak with these spices and put into a ziplock bag, then add the oil and vinegar and seal. Chill (this can be done the day before).

30 minutes before starting dinner, remove the steak from the fridge.

Usually I make the salsa while the steak is losing its chill. While chatting on the phone, drinking a beer and feeding the cat, the steak is ready to cook by the time you are done with all of these pleasant tasks.

Cherry Tomato Salsa

1 box cherry tomatoes
1/2 red onion
1 jalapeño pepper
1 red bell pepper
A bunch of cilantro
1 lime
Black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and put in a medium bowl. Chop the red onion and put in a strainer, rinse with cold water and drain, and add to tomatoes. Cut the jalapeño in half and remove seeds. If you are like me you should wear rubber gloves. Finely chop the pepper, taste a bit of it, if it’s really hot only add half, if it’s mild add the whole thing to the salsa. Chop half of the cilantro and add to the bowl and then add the juice from the lime. I put my limes in the microwave for 20 seconds before cutting in half and juicing. Add seasonings, taste for salt and pepper and toss well.

Chop the remaining cilantro and reserve as a garnish for the tacos.

(even out of tomato season you can make wonderful salsa!)

To cook the steak:

Pat the steak dry with a paper towel before cooking. Using a grill pan or large skillet, heated very hot, cook the flank steak 2 minutes on each side for medium rare (3 minutes for medium, any longer and it will be tough and chewy; if using a skillet add a little vegetable oil to the pan). Remove to a plate and let sit 5 minutes.

Warm the tortillas, and set out the salsa, the chopped cilantro and optional garnishes as desired. Slice the steak across the grain into thin slices and arrange on a platter. Decorate with the limes wedges and avocado slices.

(perfect juicy easy steak)

I like a tortilla filled with 2 slices of steak, a piece of avocado, a large spoonful of salsa, a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of cilantro. (3 WW points this way!) Last night though, I decided to make guacamole, or you can purchase guacamole from the store.


2 ripe avocados
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 red onion
1/2 tomato
1/3 tsp ground cumin
Dash cayenne
1 lime

In a molcajete or mortar and pestle pound the garlic and salt together until they form a smooth paste. Add the avocado and pound until a chunky mixture is formed. Dice the tomato and onion and add to the avocado. Add cumin, cayenne and lime juice and stir well. Check for seasonings, it might need a little more salt, lime juice or heat, depending upon your preferences. This won’t keep so feel free to indulge yourself and eat it all. Remember, avocados are really good for you! Vitamin G (for guacamole)!

I hope you try this sometime. I know it’s not a holiday meal but it’s delicious, fast and relatively inexpensive. My flank steak from Safeway was $10.65 and I will get several meals from it, or it will feed 4. And, you can make this dinner in the winter as cherry tomatoes are always abundant and taste better than any winter tomato sold out there. If you really want a fast dinner, you can make this with store bought fresh salsa. But if you can delegate cutting the tomatoes to someone or make 5 minutes to do this little task I promise you that you will be making cherry tomato salsa often.

Many thanks to annaconda for the guacamole recipe, and for taking me to that marvelous estate sale where I found a molcajete for $10 – awesome!