Two Sides: Roasted Cauliflower & Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Olives and Lemons

Thanksgiving is gonna be different this year, as every article in the country is noting. Duh.

Don't be like Casey.

You are staying home and not gathering with friends or relatives, right? Right? Because getting together for one meal this one time wouldn't be worth living with the guilt of killing your parents, grandparents, kids, relatives, friends or members of the broader community, right? Right.

Check the graph on the left if you don't believe me. (Full size version.)

So, anyway, just because there's a pandemic and you might not be getting together with the people you care most in the world about (see above) doesn't mean you can't eat well. Right?

For instance, Thanksgiving, to me, aside from spending time with those I love (but not this year, right?) is not so much about the turkey. Though Dave, who is hidebound in his compulsion to grill the bird regardless of snow, sleet, rain, freezing temperatures or any other calamities the gods may place in his path, and who must have his turkey enchiladas made from the smoky (and really quite fabulous) leftovers, will do it regardless.

Brussels sprouts with olives, lemon.

Myself, I'm all about the sides. From dressing to potatoes and gravy, to (this year) a chicory salad à la Nostrana and various seasonal vegetables roasted to perfection, they are what make the dinner for me. (Sorry, honey.)

Below are a couple of easy roast vegetable recipes that I think are pretty spectacular that you could make for the holidays or anytime, and that could even serve as vegetarian-friendly main dishes alongside a roasted squash.

Wishing you a safe and healthy holiday AT HOME. (Right?)

Roasted Cauliflower à la Sahni

This recipe is my adaptation of Julie Sahni's version in Classic Indian Cooking. Sahni, who, along with Madhur Jaffrey, brought Indian cuisine to the masses here in the US, steams her cauliflower then crisps it by frying. I found it's easier and faster to roast it.

1 medium head cauliflower
4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 1/2 Tbs. fresh grated ginger
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped fine (optional)

Preheat oven to 400°.

Separate the cauliflower into small bite-sized flowerets and chop any stems or leaves into 1/2" pieces (seriously, they're great). Place in large bowl.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a small skillet until very hot. (Flick a drop of water into the oil. If it spatters, it's hot enough.) Add coriander seeds and cumin seeds and fry until the seeds turn dark brown, about 10 seconds. Reduce heat to medium-high and add ginger, stir briefly, then add turmeric and salt and stir. Pour over cauliflower and stir to coat. Place in 9" by 12" roasting dish (or roasting pan) and place in oven for 40-50 minutes until browned and very tender.

Taste and adjust salt. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if using, and serve.


Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Olives and Preserved Lemon

1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved
10 castelvetrano olives, pitted and roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3-6 anchovies, minced
3-4 Tbsp. olive oil
4 Tbsp. preserved lemons, chopped, or juice of 1 lemon
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350°.

Place halved Brussels sprouts in a large mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Transfer to 9" by 12" roasting dish (or roasting pan) and place in oven for 35 minutes until browned and very tender. (I like the sprouts very browned on the edges.) Taste for salt and serve.

Coronavirus transmission graph from Licking County Health Department.

Sloppy, Maybe, but Perfect for Messy Fall Days

What are your comfort food favorites?

Mine tend to run to the hearty warmth and belly-filling attributes of the foods my mom made for us growing up. Tuna casserole, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and a classic pot roast top that list, and I've added a few more of my own—a pandemic pantry version of mapo tofu is a new favorite—along the way.

Fall (and a pandemic) means warmth and comfort are required!

Falling leaves and dropping mercury always mean getting out the braising pot and turning on the oven. It's an easy if not terribly efficient way to boost the chilly temperatures in a drafty old house like ours, for one thing, and the delicious smell of a joint of beef or simmering sauce wafting through the house for hours will have your neighbors hollering from the sidewalk, asking what you've got on tap for dinner.

The pandemic has everyone craving stability—three cheers for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—and comfort even more than usual, and with most of us working from home or needing to save money on groceries, homey dishes like the ones mentioned above are both easy on the budget and can handily feed a family. (No doubt the reason my mom was partial to them, with three kids and a husband to feed every night, even when she also had a full-time job.)

Dave's beautiful buns…

The other night I was rummaging in the fridge and came across a pound of ground lamb and leftover hamburger buns that Dave had made, plus there were two half-heads of cabbage left over from making tacos. I'd been craving sloppy joes for awhile, so figured now was as good a time as any to give them a whirl.

Since cooking in a global pandemic means a quick dash to the store was out of the question, I decided to deviate from the standard tomato-based sauce and take advantage of the lamb to give them a Middle East-meets-Asia twist. Plus, instead of making a slaw to serve alongside, I took a page from pulled pork sandwiches and plopped the slaw on top of the meat-slathered, open-faced buns.

(Note: It helps to have a wide-ranging condiment selection for this kind of cooking. Fortunately our condiment shelf is literally overflowing…insert hysterically laughing emoticon here.)

Feel free to use the recipe below as a guide and make your own pandemic pantry adaptations depending on what you've got on hand. It may just become a go-to comfort food staple on your family's list of favorites!

Ground Lamb Sloppy Joes

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground lamb
2 Japanese curry bricks or 2 Tbsp. curry powder
1 yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 sweet yellow pepper, diced
1 sweet red pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp. coriander seeds, ground
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2 Tbsp. gochujang
2 Tbsp. white miso
1/4 c. barbecue sauce
1/4 c. sesame vinaigrette or 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
4 hamburger buns, toasted
Cabbage slaw with miso vinaigrette (optional)
Fresh cilantro, chopped fine (optional)

Heat olive oil in deep sauté pan until it shimmers, then add ground lamb and brown. Add butter bricks or curry powder and heat, stirring until fragrant. Add yellow onion and sauté until tender. Add carrot, peppers and garlic and sauté until tender. Add cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, gochujang, miso, barbecue sauce and vinaigrette and stir to combine. Simmer for 20 minutes until flavors meld and meat is cooked through. Adjust flavors to taste, add salt if necessary.

Toast buns on both sides under broiler until nicely browned. Place one opened bun on each plate, top with meat sauce and then slaw. Garnish with cilantro if desired.

Cocktail Hour: Drink Like a Corsican

I am such a sucker for a good label, especially one with seriously old school fonts, and the one on the bottle of Mattei's Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina practically propositioned me from it's spot on the shelf. Fortunately I have a brother in the wine biz, so I didn't have to buy it blind, get it home and find out that I should have invested in a poster of the label instead.

(Yes, it's happened. On more than one occasion.)

Knowing my fondness for bitter aperitifs—Cocchi Americano Bianco, almost any Italian amaro and, of course, Campari—Bruce was more than happy to recommend adding it to our home bar. Looking it up, I learned it's one of the oldest and best known aperitifs from Corsica, "made from a base wine of Vermentino and Muscat, with subsequent additional macerations of herbs, spices, the local citron fruit, and cinchona bark (quinine, hence the name)."

It's bright, citrus-y sweetness with that typically bitter backbone only needed a cube of ice in a glass to make a late summer evening sitting on the front porch even more idyllic; a spritz of soda and a twist of lemon or orange peel wouldn't have been out of place, either.

But we're always looking for new variations on our tried-and-true list of cocktails, and since it's (nearly) fall and Manhattans are feeling oh-so-seasonal, Dave thought the quinquina might make an appropriate switch for the sweet vermouth in that cocktail. (We've done this before, of course, making a nutty, dark nocino Manhattan, among others.)

The quinquina brightens up the classic cocktail quite a bit, bringing a tinge of late summer sun, an almost-but-not-quite fall tone that matches the grapefruit color of the ash leaves falling from our trees.

Corsican

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Amarena cherries

Chill cocktail glasses in freezer. Fill pint glass or small mixing pitcher half full of ice. Add whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Stir 30 seconds. Take cocktail glasses out of freezer. Strain liquor into glass. Drop in cherry. Serve.

Restaurant Memories: The Corn Soup That Made Me Swoon

For many people, their strongest memories center around firsts: the first time they rode a bike, their first car, their first kiss.

Chef Benjamin Schade.

For me, many of those memorable firsts center around—no surprise here—food. The first time I had spit-roasted whole pig cooked over a fire by my uncles at a tiny cabin in the Blue Mountains; my first taste of kimchi at a snowy mountainside inn on a student trip to Korea; my first pesto pasta in the early days of Papa Haydn's eastside location that was so packed with garlic I could still taste it three days later—which I adored, by the way!

I remember being floored by the broth served with rockfish made by chef Serge Selbe at the London Grill that was as clear as water but was intensely infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes—he described it as filtered gazpacho. More recently my mind was blown by the corn soup made by Benjamin Schade when he was chef at the late, lamented Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland.

Slice kernels off cobs.

Regular readers know I'm a fool for anything with fresh corn in it, and this bowl was the essence of corn in a smooth, creamy, velvety robe, adorned only with a pat of butter melting seductively over its surface punctuated by a sprinkling of fresh pepper. I'd been so taken with it I pestered the poor guy for a couple of years, and just this summer he graciously agreed to share the recipe.

Recently Schade has been cultivating a working urban oasis he's dubbed Schadey Acres Farm, growing heritage varieties of beans, squash, peppers, turnips and other vegetables in the more-than-a-dozen raised beds he's built around his home. He makes use of this bounty in his capacity as a personal chef, but also produces a line of pickled and preserved goods under his own Private Reserve Preserves brand.

Purée kernels with onions, then press through a sieve.

When Schade arrived to show me how the soup was made, I was astounded to find out it had only four ingredients: butter, onions, corn and salt. No cream? What made it so velvety? He said it was all in the method, which he'd learned from Kevin Gibson while working at Castagna.

That answered a lot of my questions about this remarkable soup, since I consider Gibson to be a soup guru. (Anyone remember his remarkable Too Many Tomatoes soup from Castagna? I rest my case.)

With credit given where credit was due, Schade went on to say he basically makes the soup according to Gibson's recipe, which is incredibly simple but more technique-driven than one might guess given the number of ingredients.

Hot sauce, salt and it's done.

Starting with onions simmered in butter, Schade combined them with the kernels from 10 ears of corn which he then simmered ever-so-briefly in corn stock—Schade said Gibson told him the secret to corn soup was to "not cook the corn." Purée the mixture in a blender, run it through a sieve and it's done.

With corn nearing the end of its season in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading to the nearest farmers' market this weekend and buying up as much fresh corn as I can, so you'd best get there before I do!

Benjamin Schade's Corn Soup

Adapted from Kevin Gibson

Makes approx. 2 qts.

10 ears of corn
3 med. yellow onions, diced finely
1/4 c. butter
2 qts. corn stock
Salt
Dash of Crystal hot sauce (or tabasco)

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn. (Schade recommends placing the cob on a cutting board and slicing one side of the kernels from the cob. Rotate the cob so the cut side is against the board and slice the second side. Repeat on the last two sides of the cob. See photo above.) You can also then scrape the cobs with a knife or a handy little tool called a corn slitter to remove any remaining kernels and juice.

Corn slitter.

If you need corn stock, place the scraped cobs in a large pot (a Dutch oven or pasta pot) and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

While simmering the stock, chop the onions. Melt butter in a large pot and add onions. Sauté until translucent, stirring constantly to avoid browning. (Schade says it's critical not to brown the onions.) Add corn kernels and stir to combine then add corn stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes. (Remember Gibson's advice: do not cook the corn!)

Remove from heat and immediately strain the corn mixture through a sieve or colander, reserving the stock for another use. Put the corn in a blender, making sure not to overfill the blender; you can do this in batches—remember that hot liquids can explode out of a blender, so Schade advises holding down a thick towel over the lid of the blender while running it. Purée until completely smooth.

Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large soup pot. If you're straining several batches, you can add strained bits of corn mixture back to the next batch to purée and strain. Discard the strained remains in the compost. Schade stresses that it's better for the soup to be thick since extra liquid can be added to thin out the soup but extra liquid can’t be removed. Start thick and thin to perfect texture.

When all the corn mixture has been strained into the soup pot, add 1 tsp. of hot sauce and salt to taste. (Schade recommends no more than 1 Tbsp. hot sauce for 2 quarts of soup; he said "the hot sauce is not for heat but for the vinegar to brighten the flavor.")

Heat briefly before serving, taste for seasonings and garnish with a pat of butter and grinding of pepper.

Pandemic Project: Making Greek-Style Stuffed Grape Leaves

There are several homes in our neighborhood whose residents (current or former) planted grapes that, every spring, faithfully start producing leaves and vines that twine themselves around fences, trees or any stationary object, sporting clusters of teensy, pinhead-sized baby grapes. Most are table types, deep purple and seeded—contributor Anthony Boutard calls them "fecund"—with a few that are seedless, though their specific varieties have been lost to time.

So it was fortuitous that my friend, gifted cook and writer Denise della Santina, called and asked if I wanted to get together to make Greek-style stuffed grape leaves, the kind her mother used to make. Now, Denise's mother wasn't Greek, but she and Denise's father lived a peripatetic life, traveling extensively all over Europe with their three kids in tow, moving back and forth across the country as easily as they traversed oceans, eating and drinking and immersing themselves in the places they found themselves. It was almost the exact opposite of my own WASP-ish, Oregon-centric upbringing.

"We lived in Greece for five-plus years, so our Greek street cred is far better than elsewhere," Denise said.  "Mom learned from the village ladies even before she could speak the language."

Am I envious? Why yes, yes I am!

Denise said she'd get the supplies for the stuffing if I could find some grape leaves. I said I'd do my best.

I arrived at her house the next morning with a shopping bag stuffed full of leaves of various sizes, which turned out to be helpful, since we could use the smaller ones for stuffing and the larger leaves for covering the rolls while they cooked. She trimmed the stems and softened them in a pot of salted water on the stove while I chatted from the doorway—pandemic, remember—then brought them out to the deck where I proceeded to separate and dry the leaves.

Ever the efficient project manager, Denise had cooked and cooled the onions the night before so she could combine them with the meat and spices just before I arrived. In proper socially distanced fashion we set up our work stations at opposite ends of the long table, scissors at the ready should we need to clip some tough leaf veins and a big pot of the meat-rice mixture each.

She showed me how to lay the leaf with the underside up and the stem end toward me, and to place a small amount—a tablespoon or less—at the stem joint, folding up the leaf ends to cover it. Then, like a burrito, the sides were folded in and the whole thing was rolled up tightly.

Magic!

For the next ninety minutes or so we sat and rolled (and rolled some more), eventually filling up our trays with the shiny packets as we caught up on friends and family and  summer events. It put me in mind of the kind of repetitive, calming work that women in my family did when I was growing up, sharing stories and gossip while snapping beans or doing dishes—you wash, I'll dry—or folding clothes fresh off the clothesline.

It was a gift of near-normalcy, a small break, a time out that I sorely needed. Not to mention that dinner was done, a bonus in itself! Thanks, my dearest Denise.

Della Santina Stuffed Grape Leaves

For the stuffing:
60-75 grape leaves, about 6" in diameter*
3 onions, minced finely (a processor works for this)
2 lbs. ground lamb (or a combination of beef and lamb)
1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice
1/4 c. mint, chopped fine
3 Tbsp. dried mint (dried plus fresh gives added dimension)
3 Tbsp. olive oil (more if your meat is lean)
1 tsp. salt to start and generous grinding of pepper (see note)

For cooking the stuffed grape leaves:
1 c. water (or so)
1/2 c. lemon juice
1/2 c. olive oil

If you're using freshly picked leaves, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While it is heating, prepare the leaves by snipping off the stems and any thick vein ends. When the water boils, place the leaves in the boiling water and simmer for five minutes until softened and pliable (they'll turn dark green). Drain in a colander and run cold water over them until they can be handled.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until they're translucent and tender. Cool to room temperature.

While onions cool, take the blanched leaves and pat them dry with paper towels. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled onions with the meat, mint and olive oil and some salt and pepper.

NOTE: To test for salt, pepper and mint, heat a small frying pan over medium-high heat and brown a small amount of the meat before you add the uncooked rice; rice will dilute the saltiness. Taste and adjust salt.

Once you're satisfied with the salt level in the meat mixture, mix the uncooked rice into the meat.

Take one leaf and lay it with the shiny side down and the veined underside up, with the base of the leaf toward you. Place a tablespoon (or less if it's a smaller leaf) of the meat mixture at the base near the joint. Bring the bottom lobes up over the meat and fold in the sides (like a burrito). Then roll the packet up toward the point of the leaf. It should make a tight packet. Repeat until you've used all the meat. At this point you can store the stuffed grape leaves in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook them.

To cook the stuffed grape leaves, pour three tablespoons of olive oil into a large Dutch oven. Place the stuffed leaves into the pot, stacking them in layers if necessary. Pour the water, lemon juice and remaining olive oil over them. The water should barely cover the stuffed leaves. If it doesn't add more. Top with more leaves (fresh are fine, too) and cover with a plate to hold it all down. 

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover the pot with a lid. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour until the rice is done (test at 45 minutes and add time until meat is cooked, rice is very soft and the leaves are tender). Transfer to a platter, bathe in more lemon juice and olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

You'll also want to consider making tzatziki, a simple combination of yogurt, grated cucumber and crushed garlic.

* You can also use the preserved grape leaves that come in a jar. There are approximately 55 leaves in a 2-lb. jar.

Salad Smackdown: Six Simple Best-of-Summer Chillers

We're heading into the height of summer and, along with an avalanche of fruit and vegetables cascading in from local fields, we're also going to be hitting some mighty warm temperatures in the coming weeks. Gorgeous weather? You bet! But 100 degrees is not the time to be pulling out the braising pot or turning on the oven.

Leftover salmon salad.

And while grilling is a good solution to beating summer's heat when you need to put dinner on the table, it's good to vary the rotation, too. Which is where a back-pocket selection of simple dinner salads can come into play.

You don't have to heat up the house with hours of cooking, since most grains only need a half hour or so to get tooth-tender. Even soaking a pound of beans overnight then simmering them for an hour first thing in the morning can give you enough for a week's worth of meals.

I've put together a list of my favorite summer salads to keep your cool during the upcoming summer weather. Any would make a filling dinner all their own, and a couple could be a terrific complement to whatever you've got grilling.

Leftover Salmon Salad

2-3 c. leftover salmon, flaked
1/2 med. bulb fennel, sliced thinly
1 Tbsp. fennel fronds, chopped
2 med. plums, halved and sliced thinly
1-2 Tbsp. capers
2 green onions, sliced thinly
3 Tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon, added to taste
Salt, to taste

Put salmon, fennel, fennel fronds, plums, capers, green onions and pine nuts in large mixing bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the ingredients and add half of lemon juice. Toss gently to combine but don't break up the salmon too much. Adjust lemon juice and add salt to taste.

This would be a great lunch salad or light entrée served on a bed of fresh-from-the-garden (or farmers' market) lettuce. It would also be terrific combined with pasta or a cooked grain like farro, barley or parched green wheat (frikeh).


15-Minute Ramen Noodle Salad with Kimchi

For the dressing:
1/3 c. canola or peanut oil
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. garlic
2 tsp. tamari
2 Tbsp. white miso
1 tsp. gochugaru (optional)
1 tsp. roasted sesame oil

For the salad:
12 oz. fresh ramen noodles (not dried)
1/2 c. kimchi, chopped
1 Persian cucumber (can substitute 1/2 c. chopped English cucumber)
1 Tbsp. chopped chives for garnish

Bring a pot of water to rolling boil.

While the water is heating, make the dressing by placing all ingredients in a blender and blend at high speed until well puréed.

When the water comes to a boil, gently pull apart ramen noodles while adding them to the water. Tease the strands apart with chopsticks while the water returns to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally to keep noodles from clumping. When they're done, drain them in a colander and rinse in cold water to stop them from cooking further.

Chop kimchi into bite-sized pieces. Quarter the cucumber and slice crosswise into 1/8” slices. Place noodles, kimchi, cucumber and dressing in serving bowl and combine. Garnish with chives.


Corn Salad with Avocado Crema

For the corn salad:
1 15-1/2 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
4 ears corn, kernels sliced fresh off the cob
1/2 red onion, halved lengthwise and slivered crosswise
1/2 large cucumber, seeded and diced, or two small Persian cucumbers, chopped
1 large ripe tomato, chopped (about 2 c.)
1 Tbsp. fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt to taste

For the avocado crema:
1 c. milk
1 clove garlic
2 avocados
2 Tbsp. lime juice
1 c. sour cream
Salt to taste

In a large mixing bowl combine the black beans, corn kernels, onion, cucumber and tomato. Pour in the lime juice and olive oil and stir gently to mix.

In the bowl of a food processor pour in the milk and add the garlic, avocados and lime juice. Process until completely smooth, scraping down the sides as necessary to incorporate all the ingredients. Add sour cream and pulse until just mixed, then add salt to taste.

The crema makes nearly four cups, which is more than enough to serve a small amount alongside the salad, but it is also spectacular as a dip for chips or in tacos or burritos. It'll keep for at least a week stored in the fridge, so don't be afraid to make the whole batch. (It can also be halved if you don't want to make the whole amount.)


Nectarine and Cherry Salad with Roasted Hazelnuts

1 1/2 lbs. nectarines (yellow or white) sliced
1 1/2 c. Bing cherries, pitted and halved
1/2 c. roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped

Combine all ingredients (reserving some chopped nuts) in a bowl and toss. Garnish with remaining hazelnuts.


BLT Salad

Adapted from Jim Dixon of Real Good Food

For the salad:
2 c. stale bread, cut in 1" cubes
4 oz. sliced bacon, cut crosswise in 1/4" pieces
3 medium-sized tomatoes, chopped in 1" cubes
1 small head iceberg lettuce or 1 medium head romaine, chopped

For the dressing:
1/4 c. mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 Tbsp. buttermilk or whole milk
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

To make this more-than-just-a-tomato salad-with-bacon, start by cooking about a quarter pound of good bacon until it's crispy. Set the bacon aside and add a couple of handfuls of cubed bread to the bacon fat. If there's not enough to really coat the bread, add some extra virgin olive oil. Toast the bread until it's lightly browned.

Add dressing ingredients to a large salad bowl and whisk to combine. Add salad ingredients and toss well to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


Kale, Lentil and Nectarine Salad

3 c. lacinato kale, sliced into chiffonade
2 c. cooked lentils
1/4 red onion, chopped fine
1/2 cucumber, seeded, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 red bell pepper, roasted and thinly sliced into 1" long pieces
2 nectarines, chopped into 1/2” pieces
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 c. olive oil
Salt to taste

Combine ingredients in large salad bowl. Toss. Adjust seasonings.

Pandemic Life: Can We Still Be Happy?

I'm gonna lay it all out on the line here. I am not a happy camper when I cannot see my friends, as the kids say, "IRL"—in real life; to hear their stories, watch their faces erupt into guffaws, or catch the tiny nuances at the corners of their mouths or the glint in their eyes (talking to you, Anthony Boutard).

Facetime or Zoom meet-ups are not the same as those face-to-face, real-time moments. I get that it's necessary if your family or friends live across the country and electronic connections are better than once-a-year, holiday trips. But a pandemic's a pandemic, especially when cases are spiking, and no one wants to get sick or make their loved ones or communities sick, much less kill them.

So how do you socialize in person and still keep yourself and others safe?

Our back yard fits two (distanced) couples for happy hour.

Some recommendations are obvious: Stay outside. Wear masks. Keep at least six feet between each other. Or, as Melissa Clark said in a recent New York Times article on entertaining in a pandemic, "the only way to bring people together is to figure out how to keep them apart."

While admitting that there's no way to host a gathering that is 100 percent safe, Clark said it is possible to reduce risks. I agree with her advice to use the comfort threshold of the most anxious person in the group as your guide, since the point is to spend quality time together, not give someone PTSD.

This takes communication with your guests, both in the planning and setting of expectations for the gathering. Clark goes so far as to discuss appropriate bathroom protocols with her guests, but we've chosen to solve that problem by limiting the length of time spent at the handful of happy hours we've had with good friends and family. We have yet to break the dinner barrier, but will be doing that this weekend, again with lots of planning and discussion of comfort levels.

Keep food simple and easy…like this Tuscan-style bean spread.

My best advice is to keep it simple. Dave has mastered the art of making cocktails while wearing a mask and gloves, and I've managed to cobble together our meager collection of trays so each party has their own individual appetizer serving. Dips and salsas are easy to spoon into cups or bowls, cheeses can be divided into individual wedges and crackers or chips can be parceled to avoid the problem of reaching into a common serving bowl.

Wine is easy, since one person can be the designated "pourer" so multiple people aren't handling bottles. Paper napkins and sanitzer have become a part of the tablescape, with bleach wipes available as well.

Below is an easy white bean spread that makes enough to be divided, and has been a hit at a couple of our cocktail hours. I'm just happy to be seeing friends again!

And if you've got some bang-up suggestions for entertaining in a pandemic, e-mail me your ideas and what you've learned. I'd love to do a follow-up post!

Tuscan-style White Bean Spread with Capers

1 15-oz. can cannelini beans, drained (or use 2 c. cooked white beans)
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. capers (or more if you adore them like I do)
1-2 Tbsp. parsley, minced (optional)

Put beans, garlic, salt, thyme, lemon juice and olive oil in food processor and process until smooth. Using a spatula, scoop bean purée into medium-sized bowl and add capers and parsley. Stir to combine and adjust salt. Serve with bread, pita or crackers.

Makes about two cups. (Can be doubled.)

On Stage: Creamy Spring Pasta with Asparagus and Fennel

Cooking is saving my sanity these days. Yes, making three meals a day for a family can also be drudgery, but I can't help getting excited when I scan what's on offer at our farmers' markets or my local greengrocer. In this transition between spring and summer, we've still got spring delights like local asparagus, spring onions, fennel and favas until summer squashes, luscious berries, tomatoes, peaches and the rest of summer's bounty step on stage.

I've been loving our mild spring weather that has allowed for roasting chicken in the oven and making soups on the stovetop, but hasn't precluded grilling outside or (distanced) happy hours in the back yard with friends. (Expect a separate post on outdoor happy hours in a pandemic, including appetizers and drinks!)

In this crossover season between spring and summer I find that I'm still craving comfort foods, so I started casting about in my mental recipe box while rummaging through the refrigerator. With asparagus and fennel in the veg bin, a creamy spring pasta seemed like it might hit the "warm and cozy" button but still promise some springy pizazz in every bite.

Quick to make and startlingly delicious, with a minimum of fuss (or chopping), it was super satisfying and gave me options for making it again with seasonal vegetables to come. A glass of crisp rosé alongside, and my sanity was intact, at least for one more day.

Creamy Spring Asparagus and Fennel Pasta

For the sauce:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. flour
1 c. milk
1/4 c. stock (chicken or vegetable)
2 oz. cream cheese
1/2 c. parmesan, grated, plus more for serving
Zest of one lemon

For the pasta:
1 lb. dried pasta
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
1 lb. asparagus, sliced in 1-inch pieces
1 c. slivered fennel
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 green onions, sliced crosswise into 1/8" slices
1/2 c. parsley

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil.

For the sauce, heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat, whisk in flour until smooth, return to heat and cook for one minute. Whisk in milk and stock until slightly thickened. Add cream cheese and parmesan and stir until smooth. Stir in lemon zest and reduce heat to warm.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and boil until al dente.

In a large skillet heat the oil for the pasta until it shimmers, then add onion and sauté until translucent.  Add asparagus pieces, fennel and garlic and sauté until tender. Stir in green onions. Reduce heat to warm until pasta is done.

When pasta is done, drain and put back in its pot. Add vegetables, cream sauce and parsley and stir to combine. Empty pasta into serving dish and sprinkle with some of the extra grated parmesan. Serve.

This would also be terrific with fava beans and peas, or in a month or so you could make it with zucchini or yellow squash and peas. The possibilities seem endless!

My Mapo, aka Pandemic Pantry Tofu Pork

It's a pretty common trope that blogs, especially cooking blogs, are supposed to be cheery, encouraging, inspiring their readers with a can-do, positive attitude about taking ingredients and turning them into tasty, Instagrammable meals.

But I won't lie to you. As much as I love taking sustainably grown, bursting-with-life, seasonal ingredients and making delicious meals for my family, the daily chore can get to be a grind. Throw in a global pandemic that limits trips to the store to once a week rather than nipping to the store for that lime you forgot on an earlier trip, not to mention social distancing, masks and gloves, and pretty soon you're over your stress limit.

Personally, my cranky quotient has been off the charts lately. (Just ask Dave.)

This rant is all by way of saying, let yourself off the hook. Sam Sifton and Gwyneth Paltrow aren't peeking in your windows, so don't worry if you don't have all the ingredients called for in a recipe. Find something in your pantry or in the back of the condiment shelf in your fridge that might approximate it, or leave it out altogether. You're cooking in a pandemic, dammit!

This exact thing happened the other evening as I was trying to come up with something for dinner. I wanted to use some tofu that I'd bought the week before that had found a super cold spot in our fridge and was partially frozen but still usable. I was looking up recipes and came across one for mapo tofu that called for ground pork—I had some in the freezer and could easily thaw it in time—but also required a Chinese fermented bean paste called doubanjiang, and mirin, a Japanese rice wine. Neither of which I had.

I did find a half jar of gochujang, a Korean fermented red chili paste left from a batch of kimchi, some black miso a friend had made (thanks, Linda!), and there was a splash of sauvignon blanc left from the night before. "Good enough!" says I. And dang if it wasn't perfectly swell.

I am, after all, cooking in a pandemic.

My Mapo aka Pandemic Pantry Tofu Pork

1 lb. firm tofu
3 cloves garlic, minced
1" piece ginger, peeled and grated
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 c. spring onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. gochujang or doubanjiang
2 Tbsp. mirin or dry white wine
2 Tbsp. miso
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Slivered green onions or save a few slices of green tops from the spring onions

Take 1 pound block of firm tofu and slice into 1/2" slabs. Place in single layer in 8" by 10" dish. Set slightly smaller dish on top and weight with large cans or bowl of water to press water out of slabs. Allow to press for 30 minutes. Drain and slice slabs into 1/2" cubes.

Heat oil in deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add garlic and grated ginger and warm about 30 seconds. Add ground pork and brown. Add sliced spring onions and sauté until tender. Add remaining ingredients and stir for 3-5 minutes. Add cubed tofu on top and very gently combine with the meat and onion mixture; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Serve with rice. Garnish with slivered green onions.

Classic Casseroles: Four Favorites That Bring The Comfort

In stressful times like we're in now, where even the smallest effort can seem strangely exhausting and where fear threatens to become a constant companion, I crave the familiar, whether it's my favorite sweatshirt—because, really, who bothers to get dressed up any more?—or the lovely aroma of good food baking in the oven, with the promise of a delicious meal soon to emerge.

Crab mac'n'cheese.

Anything hot and creamy and filling will do, and for me that often takes the shape of a casserole, that standby of my mother's generation that filled her three kids' bellies for a relative pittance. Classics like macaroni and cheese or tuna casserole would come courtesy of a box or with help from a can—we considered cream of mushroom soup part of the glue that held our world together—and could be put together in a few minutes. Then it was popped into the oven for a half hour or so, enough for her and my father to put their feet up and share a glass of wine.

Eggplant parmesan.

These days I tend to eschew the boxes or cans (so long, Kraft and Campbells!) and make my sauces from scratch, but I still duck into the pantry for staples like pasta or tuna or cornmeal. Knowing what goes into my food rather than trusting a giant corporation to look after my family's health over their bottom line means the preparation might take a few minutes longer, but I still get that blessed half hour while it bubbles away, coming out crisp and creamy and steaming to the table.

Below is my recipe for the creamiest macaroni and cheese I've ever had and a family staple made with cheddar from a local small farm. It's infinitely mutable: I've made versions with bacon and garlic (top photo), salmon and crab, and even a version with pimiento cheese.

Tuna Mushroom Casserole.

You can also check out my version of classic tuna casserole made with foraged mushrooms that works just as well with button mushrooms from the store. Then there's a fabulous eggplant parmesan that is so sumptuous it's perfect as a main dish yet extremely simple to prepare—and vegetarian, even! And another regular from my childhood, a tamale pie that I make from pasture-raised hamburger, corn I froze from the summer and cornmeal ground and grown an hour's drive from the city.

I hope you're staying safe and healthy, and that these recipes bring a measure of comfort to your tables and your lives. Enjoy!

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. dried pasta
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 c. milk
8-12 oz. aged cheddar cheese, grated*
8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil large pot of salted water. While water is heating, melt butter in medium-sized saucepan. Remove from burner and add flour, stirring to combine. Place saucepan back on burner and cook on low heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add milk gradually, stirring/whisking until thickened, then add cheese in handfuls, stirring until melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste. (The sauce should be slightly saltier than you'd normally make it, since when combined with the pasta it will tend to make it taste less salty.)

Add pasta to boiling water and cook till al dente. Drain and put back in pasta pot, add cheese sauce and stir gently to combine. Transfer to baking dish. Bake in 350 degree oven 30 minutes.

* I like a couple of sharp cheddars made locally, and recommend Face Rock Aged Cheddar and TMK Creamery Cheddar. Also Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar and Organic Valley Grassmilk Cheddar are excellent.