Quick and Easy Meat Sauce for Busy Weeknights

Shallow earth-coloured bowl on a turquoise tablecloth. The bowl contains a tomato and ground meat sauce, butternut squash "noodles" and shredded fresh basil.

Although it would be lovely to have a pot of bolognese sauce magically simmering away on the stove when you get home from work on a particularly hellish Tuesday, it’s not something one typically indulges in during the week (I mean, if we’re going the magical route I’d also like to request a nightly boulevardier while I sit with my legs dangling in my completely fictitious backyard pool). So, in the same way I settle for a slightly chilly shower and a glass of ice water in place of a bourbon-based treat, this recipe is a perfectly delicious way to “settle” when you’re short on time and energy. You can use ground turkey, chicken, beef, or pork (or any combination thereof), you can even use crumbled tofu, tempeh, or lentils if you’re looking for a meatless version. The finely chopped mushrooms have enough umami heft to blend in with the ground meat, I like to use a mix of portobello and shiitake mushrooms if I have them but more often than not I use regular white button mushrooms (with great success, I might add). Don’t leave out the oil-packed sundried tomatoes, they have an intensely tomato-y taste that gives occasionally lacklustre canned tomatoes a huge boost in flavour. This recipe makes a lot of sauce (is it even possible to make a small amount of pasta sauce?) so go ahead and freeze it for even easier weeknight dinners. To make things ever easier at the end of a long day, prep the onion, mushrooms, garlic, and sundried tomatoes the day before, the ground meat can also be cooked ahead of time. Depending on what’s in my pantry and fridge at the time, I like to use this sauce on both traditional pasta and spiralized vegetables (especially butternut squash and zucchini noodles).

quick and easy meat sauce for busy weeknights:

1+1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 lbs. ground meat (the picture above is of the sauce made with ground turkey)

1 medium-sized white onion, finely diced

2 cups finely chopped mushrooms

1 tsp. kosher salt (plus more to taste)

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. dried Italian seasoning

1/4 cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, finely chopped

14/-1/2 tsp. dried chili flakes

1/2 cup red wine (optional)

1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes

1 14-oz. can puréed tomatoes

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/2 cup fresh basil (plus more for garnish), cut into a thin chiffonade

1/2 fresh parsley (plus more for garnish), roughly chopped

  1. Cook the ground meat in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet until the meat is no longer pink inside. Drain off the fat and set aside.
  2. In a large pot heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and add the diced onion and chopped mushrooms. Sprinkle the kosher salt over the onion and mushrooms, allowing them to cook for 8-10 minutes or until softened.
  3. Add the minced garlic, dried Italian seasoning, sundried tomatoes, dried chili flakes, and optional red wine. Continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes before adding the diced and puréed tomatoes and tomato paste. Add the ground meat and stir to combine.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium-low and allow the sauce to cook for another 30 minutes, covered. Stir in the fresh herbs towards the end of the cooking time, taste and adjust seasonings as needed before serving.

PJ Harvey makes some of my favourite “being alone” music, everything she does sounds like it’s somehow a secret just for you. This album came out in the middle of my high school career, I had heard PJ Harvey before but never felt intimately acquainted because I was a few years too young for her earlier work. I remember Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea was considered her most commercial work at the time, but it was a perfect diving-off point for me as a 16-year old. It clearly had an impact, this is still the album I turn to when I’m alone most often – especially when I’m alone and cooking.

PJ Harvey – A Place Called Home

Fiery Spaghetti with Plenty of Garlic, Fresh Herbs, and Parmesan

Spaghetti with Fresh Herbs, Chilies, Parmesan, and Black Pepper on a vivid red background.

This recipe has many, many variations but the basic idea is always the same: heaps of fiery chilies, bright greenery, enough garlic to offend anyone within close range, and some sort of satisfying umami element to bring it all together. You could go ahead and use any type of pasta you prefer, but there’s something very satisfying about eating a big bowl of perfectly toothsome al dente spaghetti that I find essential to this loosely crafted recipe. If I’m using sub-par garlic, which tends to be often, I use between 5-7 cloves to really drive the point home. If you’re lucky to have wonderfully pungent cloves then feel free to scale back (or not). I have fresh basil and parsley kicking around more often than other greenery, but I’ve also had immense luck with arugula, dill, and even baby spinach. What you’re looking for is a big happy juxtaposition of elements, the greens need to be capable of standing up for themselves and shining through layers of other robust flavours. The cheese is the umami hit that’s so essential when bringing all these flavours together, I tend to have a big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano hanging out in the fridge so I use it as my default ingredient but anything aged and flavourful will work wonderfully (may I humbly suggest Pecorino Romano, aged Manchego, Piave Vecchio, Asiago, Crotenese, or even a really aged goat’s milk gouda).

fiery spaghetti with plenty of garlic, fresh herbs, and parmesan:

Enough spaghetti for 1-2 people

Olive oil

5-7 cloves of garlic, finely minced (if you have super strong garlic use less, or not!)

A big handful of flavourful greens and fresh herbs (parsley and basil are my personal favourite)

Copious amounts of freshly cracked pepper

Dried chili flakes

Parmesan cheese, grated (or other aged cheese)

Kosher salt to taste

  1. Cook the spaghetti according to package directions, before draining reserve about half of a cup of the pasta water.
  2. In the same pot that the pasta was cooked in heat up the olive oil over medium heat.
  3. Sauté the minced garlic until fragrant and then add the fresh greens and dried chili peppers.
  4. Toss the spaghetti and pasta water with the garlic, dried chili peppers, and greens. Take off the heat and add the freshly cracked pepper, parmesan cheese, and kosher salt to taste.
  5. Serve in large bowls with extra cheese and greens sprinkled on top. Eat large amounts while still piping hot, relax and reflect on how happy and nourished you feel.

I have to admit, there’s something about The War on Drugs that reminds me of early childhood, being in the car with my dad while he listened to Dire Straits or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. As with so many things in my life, nostalgia takes the wheel once again and steers my taste. I love this album, it’s just meant for sunny Sunday afternoons and lying around on the couch, waiting to gently fall asleep in the pools of a softly filtered sunbeam.

The War on Drugs – Comin’ Through

Fiery Israeli Couscous Salad with a Creamy Avocado and Fresh Herb Dressing

Israeli Couscous salad with creamy avocado herb dressing

I have been away the past couple of months because I’ve been writing, writing, writing and then writing some more; this Edward Gorey illustration is an accurate representation of how I’m feeling these days:

edward-gorey

You know what helps when I feel this burnt out? Salads all.the.time. I’m a huge fan of salads that are sturdy, salads that will last a few days in the fridge without becoming mushy or soggy. This salad has a big bite which can be lessened by using roasted sweet peppers instead of roasted serrano peppers – both of which can be found conveniently packed into jars or can be roasted at home in a short amount of time. I’m also obsessed with fresh herbs, I think that fresh basil smells like the greenest, deepest, most intense liquorice heaven ever. Don’t be shy with the lemon juice in the dressing, plenty of lemon is the key to preventing the avocado dressing from turning brown.  Israeli couscous is perfect in this recipe, the dense chewiness is a satisfying foil to the bright zippy flavours of the remaining ingredients. Pearl barley and orzo make excellent substitutes if you can’t find Israeli couscous, I’ve tried it with both and been more than happy with the results.

fiery israeli couscous salad with a creamy avocado and fresh herb dressing:

1 1/2 cups of dried Israeli couscous, cooked in salted water according to package directions

1 medium cucumber, peeled in alternating stripes and cut into thin quarter moons

3 roasted serrano peppers, seeds removed and sliced into rough strips

2 roasted sweet peppers, seeds removed and sliced into rough strips

1 bunch of scallions, greens thinly sliced

Big handfuls of fresh parsley, basil, mint, and cilantro to scatter on top of the salad

1-2 Bird’s Eye chilies, sliced paper-thin to scatter on top of the salad

for the creamy avocado and fresh herb dressing:

1 super ripe avocado

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of 1 lime

1/4 cup of olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, loosely chopped

1 cup of fresh basil

1/2 cup parsley

1/2 cup cilantro

A few mint leaves

1/4 cup of Greek yogurt or Skyr

1 tsp. kosher salt

Freshly cracked pepper

Combine all of the salad ingredients except for the fresh herbs in a large bowl. Pulse together the salad dressing ingredients in a food processor, adjust seasonings if needed. Drizzle the salad dressing over the salad ingredients and toss until coated, transfer the salad to a shallow salad bowl and scatter with the fresh herbs and sliced chilies. Serve this salad at room temperature or while still cold, it will keep in the fridge for up to 4 days.

Music for writing and music for eating while taking breaks from typing tends to be either Nick Drake, Erik Satie, Glenn Gould’s Bach Variations, Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions, and Brian Eno. Music For Airports instantly transports me back to early childhood, my mom used to play this album for my sister and I when we had our afternoon naps. Music For Airports is like the smell of rose hips and jasmine, things I associate with my mom’s room when I was growing up, particularly if she had been in there getting ready to go to work or out with friends.

Brian Eno – Music For Airports

 

 

 

Chicken Cacciatore

Large cast iron skillet full of chicken cacciatore sprinkled with fresh herbs on a blue tablecloth.

As I’ve said before, I’m always tempted  to go the fussy route when cooking for other people. I know the food I write about is often and ideally simple, but believe me when I say that it takes lot of back and forth conversation in my head to arrive at the meals I write about. So, after an evening spent buried under cookbooks and cooking magazines, with notes and grocery lists jotted down several times over, I stopped to think about what I would actually love to eat more than anything else at that moment in time. I’d been thinking about my grandma’s chicken cacciatore lately, served with a paper napkin on her white and navy blue flower-lined Corningware dishes, and I decided right then and there that chicken cacciatore would be on the menu for Lela’s birthday dinner. You could substitute other chicken pieces for the thighs, but I think that in general the dark meat tastes better – chicken breasts could work if pounded thin in order to prevent them from drying out. I love chicken cacciatore with buttered egg noodles, but I just happen to love buttered egg noodles in any context so I’m approaching this recipe with a firm bias, buttered white rice would also be delicious if noodles are absent from your pantry. If you don’t have anything you can use to cook with both on top of and in the stove, just transfer the chicken and sauce into a baking pan before popping into the oven.

chicken cacciatore:

2 Tbsp. + 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

8 chicken thighs (the skin is up to you, but I think it imparts some notable flavour to the finished product

1 medium onion, chopped into a fine dice

2 sweet peppers, the sweetest ones you can find (colour is secondary)

2 cups thinly sliced button mushrooms

3 cloves of garlic, finely minced

A scant cup of dry white wine

1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes

2 tsp. Italian herb seasoning

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1/4 tsp. red chili flakes

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Small handful of fresh parsley and basil,  chopped

Buttered egg noodles or rice for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven brown the chicken thighs in 2 Tbs. of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Transfer the chicken to a large plate and add the rest of the oil to the skillet or Dutch oven, lower the heat to medium or even medium-low in order to prevent burning the vegetables.
  2. Cook the onions, red peppers, mushrooms, and garlic in the oil until they begin to soften, giving them a light dusting of salt halfway through. Stir in the dried Italian seasoning, smoked paprika, and red chili flakes before adding the white wine and tomatoes, deglazing the pan by scraping up any flavourful burnt bits of chicken that might be stuck to the bottom of the pan.
  3. Stir in a small amount of the chopped herb mixture and taste the sauce to check for seasoning, adjust accordingly. Add the chicken thighs, nestling them into the sauce, and cook uncovered in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the rest of the parsley and basil. Serve over buttered egg noodles or rice; if kept separate from the starches the sauce and chicken will keep for another 2 days in the fridge.

It’s funny listening to music under the influence of very different time periods of your life. When I first bought this CD it coincided with Fiona Apple’s appearance on the cover of Seventeen magazine (which I had a subscription to). I remember liking her for her how cool she came across as well as being a good singer, who could forget that speech at the 1997 MTV VMAs? And now, as an adult, I’m like “oh yeah! She’s also an incredible songwriter and lyricist!”  Funny how these things shift, and funny that despite my personal reactions she’s carried me through a million and half sullen afternoons of my own.

Fiona Apple – Sullen Girl

Orzo Pasta Salad with Roasted Eggplant, Zucchini, Red Peppers and Sweet Corn

Square white bowl with creamy orzo pasta salad with roasted red peppers, zucchini, and eggplant. On a blue and white striped tablecloth.

Cooking in the summer is so easy, it’s just a matter or picking out what looks best at the market on the way home from work (if you’re fortunate enough to live near fresh produce stands, that is). I love walking into the New Apple Market on West Broadway to admire whatever it is that’s new on any given day, sometimes picking out a bouquet of inexpensive peonies for my bedroom. Pasta salad is the best thing to have floating around in the fridge in the summer, meals come together in minutes and packed lunches are ready to go for the week. Orzo is my go-to shape for pasta salad, it retains its bite and shape even after being coated in a creamy dressing for up to 4 days. I prefer the taste of jarred and marinated roasted red peppers for this recipe, they add a sweet and tangy kick and come packed in brine that serves as an ingredient for the dressing. If you can find good quality jarred and roasted zucchini or eggplant slices use them as well. I sometimes find that these pantry staples can have a greyish taste so make sure they’re a brand worth using in place of the freshly roasted version. The corn, prepared however you like, is a pleasing addition to the orzo and adds a whole other layer of bright sweetness to the finished result. Add crumbled chèvre or Macedonian feta for some extra creaminess or a can of drained chickpeas for  additional heft.

orzo pasta salad with roasted eggplant, zucchini, and red peppers:

1 package of orzo

1 eggplant, cut into small cubes

1 zucchini, cut into small cubes

1 jar of roasted red peppers + 1/4 cup of brine

About 3 ears worth of corn, roasted/grilled/or boiled and cooled

1 bunch of scallions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup of green olives, pitted and cut into very small pieces

1 bunch of fresh basil, cut in a chiffonade

1 small bunch of parsley, finely chopped

Olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the orzo in lightly salted water according to package instructions. Rinse with cold water until the orzo is room temperature. Transfer to a large salad bowl and drizzle with olive oil and stir to prevent the pasta from sticking together.
  2.  Arrange the cut up eggplant and zucchini on a large parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Coat with olive oil using your hands to ensure even coverage. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove from oven and set aside.
  3. Dice the marinated roasted red peppers and add to the orzo. Stir in the corn, eggplant, zucchini, scallions, green olives, fresh basil, and parsley. Toss the mixture with the dressing, stirring thoroughly so that the pasta and vegetables are completely coated. Add plenty of freshly cracked pepper and salt to taste before allowing to sit 15 minutes before serving.

for the creamy dressing:

1/4 cup of roasted red pepper brine

Juice of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1/4  cup olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely minced

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a jar and shake until completely emulsified (or whisk in a bowl until you get the same result).

This is music that best scores my solo endeavours, making dinner late at night on my own while I’m in my nightgown, walking around in the rain with headphones on, or reading library books on the couch. Endearing, sweetly nostalgic songs that buffer the slightly overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by too much empty space.

Plums – Parking Lots

Easy Summer Spaghetti with Yellow Squash, Tomatoes, and Quick Homemade Pesto

A round white bowl full of spaghetti, yellow squash, and grape tomatoes covered with green pesto and topped with parmesan cheese,.

I have a very bad habit of getting overwhelmed with summer produce, the choice in colour and flavour is unmatched the rest of the year (at least for me, in British Columbia). This means that I’m sometimes able to convince myself it’s a good idea to buy 6 summer squash because I can’t resist their sunny coats, or an excess of tiny tomatoes smelling of pleasantly earthy and dried out vines. Or, I’ll buy huge quantities of fresh arugula or that overwhelmingly fresh-smelling gigantic bunch of mint. Luckily, this recipe for Easy Summer Spaghetti with Yellow Squash, Tomatoes, and Quick Homemade Pesto is a common fix for an overabundance of vegetables. The summer vegetables can be swapped out for whatever you have in your vegetable drawer, the options are virtually limitless in terms of variety and methods of combination. The pesto is easy, and yes, extremely quick to put together and once again can function as a delicious means to using up all those slightly wilted herbs and greens lurking in the crisper. I use pepitas instead of pine nuts in my quick pesto, because I rarely have them in the pantry and I’ve always been sensitive to nut allergies (I’m not allergic to pine nuts, but my mom is and I’ve grown up trying to be very careful). You could also use slivered almonds or cashews for an extra luxurious texture.

easy summer spaghetti with yellow squash, tomatoes, and quick homemade pesto:

1 yellow summer squash, cut into 2 cm slices and then into thick matchsticks

1 pint grape tomatoes, washed

2 shallots or 1/2 a small onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1 package of spaghetti

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  1. Put a big pot of salted water on to boil while you cut up your vegetables.
  2. Prepare the spaghetti according to package directions and as it cooks sauté the summer squash, tomatoes, shallots, and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until everything starts to soften and the garlic gets really fragrant, season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining the spaghetti. Return the pasta to the pot and stir in the cooked vegetables and pesto, adding the cooking liquid in small increments until the desired sauce coverage is achieved.
  4. Serve the spaghetti in warmed shallow dishes with a liberal dusting of grated cheese and a few extra cracks of fresh pepper.

for the pesto:

About 2-3 cups of fresh herbs and greens, loosely torn (I like to use a combination of fresh mint, basil, parsley and arugula for this recipe)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2 Tbsp. pepitas

1 tsp kosher salt

1 ounce of parmesan, grated

3 Tbsp. olive oil

Blitz together the herbs/greens, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and parmesan in a food processor until everything is finely chopped. Slowly pour the olive oil into the the feed chute until the pesto is creamy and emulsified, scraping down the sides a couple of times as it’s being processed.

I’ve been mostly listening to classical music  while I cook, that or Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice on audiobook. I have really nice, consistently calming summer memories involving classical piano music playing with the windows open. I have just as many wonderful thoughts about cooking at the end of the day to relax and unwind, floating around on a cloud of Chopin with my pyjamas on and a glass of wine. Either way, pleasant feelings.

Chopin – Complete Nocturnes (Brigitte Engerer)

Slow Roasted Red Pepper and Ricotta Pasta Sauce

White bowl full of penne and a roasted red pepper blush sauce on an orange tablecloth.

I’m coming down from one incredible weekend; it’s Tuesday and I still feel some residual buzzing going on. Last Friday afternoon 11 of our friends came up to Vancouver from Seattle and San Francisco for a gigantic friend reunion of sorts. On top of that, I saw Beach House twice (!!) – Saturday at The Vogue and then Sunday night at Performance Works on Granville Island. Saturday’s concert was of course, wonderful, and Sunday’s performance was so special and so beautiful. Beach House did a series of intimate concerts in very small spaces, just the 2 original band members, and my husband was lucky enough to have been able to get us both tickets. From the moment we stepped into the witchy magenta hued space I felt utterly enchanted, the light show itself was gorgeous and sitting on the floor with cushions while you get to experience the visuals and the music all at once was an unforgettable experience. It was wonderful being able to surround myself with a live performance in such an aesthetically pleasing cocoon, I felt as though I was floating on the way home afterwards.

Tray of cut up peppers, celery, cucumber, and grape tomatoes.

On Saturday afternoon we all came to the consensus that dinner should be easy and totally uncomplicated. Pizza was ordered and I made a vegetable platter with hummus that I doctored with Greek yogurt and cumin. At the end of the evening I came home by myself, in desperate need of some solitude after the concert and the swarms of people downtown. While everyone else went on a drinking adventure I got into my pajamas, had a beer, and watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in bed (which is pretty much my definition of paradise). I also snacked on the leftover cut up vegetables but realized that I’d need to think of a good use for all of the peppers I’d cut into strips. Monday night, when Ian and I were both in battery charging mode AKA extreme states of introversion, I decided that the leftover pepper strips would be just perfect for a pasta sauce because let’s face it, pasta has and will always be the best form of comfort that food can possibly offer. I wasn’t in any hurry because I was having a great time just reading a PD James book on the couch so I slow roasted the vegetables, this also made them very sweet and full of flavour without the unsightly addition of sugar burned black flecks in the sauce. The ricotta helps to thicken the sauce without having to add flour, it also gives an incredibly rich taste and texture without adding a surplus of cream. In fact, the small amount of cream called for in the recipe could easily be substituted with milk, just be sure not to bring the sauce to a boil in order to avoid accidental separation.

slow roasted red pepper and ricotta sauce:

3 sweet peppers, cut into strips

10 grape or cherry tomatoes

1 large red onion, cut into fat wedges

4 cloves of garlic, left whole in their papery husks

3 Tbsp. olive oil

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

2/3 cup of ricotta

1/3 cup of cream

5 fresh basil leaves (plus more for garnishing), torn into pieces

Pasta of your choice

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Spread the pepper strips, tomatoes, onion wedges, and garlic in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and freshly cracked pepper, add the rosemary whole and with your hands toss the vegetable mixture to coat.
  3. Roast the vegetables for up to an hour, stirring every 20 minutes or so to ensure even cooking. The vegetables are done when they’re very soft and beginning to caramelize. Remove the rosemary and garlic husks and transfer the remaining vegetables and their juices to a food processor and pulse until you have a not so smooth puree.
  4. Add the red wine vinegar, ricotta, cream, and 5 basil leaves to the food processor and give a final blitz – the sauce should still be slightly chunky in texture. Adjust the salt and pepper if neccessary.
  5. Cook the pasta until al dente, saving about 1/2 cup of cooking liquid for the sauce. Lower the heat and transfer the sauce into the pot used for cooking the pasta and stir in the cooking liquid and sauce. Allow the pasta and sauce to cook together for about 5 minutes, this will give the sauce a chance to thicken up before you serve it. Garnish with a generous amount of fresh basil that’s been cut into a very fine chiffonade.

This song is an ideal addition to my soundtrack for the last few days, kind of like a beautiful sunset after a sublimely sunny day – pure, melodic, and strangely intimate. After Sunday’s show I now have an accompanying vision of light installation flower walls from floor to ceiling and both of us on pillows, leaning into each other in the softest moment possible.

Beach House – Real Love