December 18, 2019

Dear friends,
I have always wanted to go to an Italian family’s Christmas dinner. I have written about the traditional Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes and printed recipes for Italian cookies and desserts but never actually participated. The closest I’ll come to an Italian holiday meal is probably the baked penne I made last week for Tony.

I could do a lot worse than share the creamy, walnut-studded pasta with my family. A LOT worse, given my family’s penchant for serving potato salad and meatloaf on the holiday (hence my desire to be adopted by an Italian family).

I made the pasta to share with you, though, not them. I figured maybe you could use a recipe for a make-ahead, luxurious dish large enough for a crowd. In the days before and after Christmas, if you’re lucky, your house will be filled with loved ones. This pasta is an easy way to feed them.

The recipe is a riff on one I found in Sarah Leah Chase’s “Cold Weather Cooking.” I changed the seasonings and a few other ingredients. In my version, cooked penne pasta is tossed in a casserole with cream, eggs, walnuts and a simple but deeply flavored tomato sauce quickly made in a skillet. Gruyere cheese is folded in, and the whole thing is scented with nutmeg, recalling the Northern Italian meat sauces that I love. It is baked until melty and bubbly and is absolutely delicious.

Buon Natale. And if you’re Italian and need a taste tester next week, give me a call.

BAKED PENNE PASTA WITH GROUND BEEF AND WALNUTS IN TOMATO-CREAM SAUCE

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 tbsp. herbes de Provence
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Salt, pepper
1 can (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes in puree
1 lb. penne pasta
2 eggs
2/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup broken walnut pieces
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded gruyere cheese (or Baby Swiss or mozzarella)
3 tbsp. grated Parmesan

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is translucent. Crumble in ground beef and cook until browned, breaking up meat with the edge of a spoon. Stir in herbes de Provence, nutmeg and plenty of salt and pepper. Stir in crushed tomatoes and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. In a casserole or deep oblong baking dish that holds 3 quarts, whisk together eggs and cream. When sauce and pasta are done, stir pasta into the dish with the cream and eggs, rapidly folding to coat pasta evenly. Stir in the walnuts and tomato sauce. Stir in all but one-half cup of the shredded gruyere, folding to distribute evenly.

Sprinkle remaining cheeses over top of casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until hot and bubbly and edges begin to brown. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Pass coarse sea salt at the table (it’s hard to get the seasoning right when cooking). The salt will bring out the flavor.

TIDBITS

OK, I am a fan. I sous vide-ed last week and the contraption is still in my kitchen, unlike the InstantPot that I banished to the basement after two lackluster meals.

I decided to give sous vide a whirl when I saw the immersion cookers on sale for $49.99 at Aldi. The one I bought looks like an immersion blender but fatter and heavier, with a readout on top of the handle and a clip on the side for attaching it to a pan filled with water.

The directions were easy to follow: Fill a deep pan with warm water, punch in the desired time and temperature and, after the water heats, lower in a sealed package of meat. I used a corned beef brisket I had sealed in plastic with my Seal-A-Meal. If you don’t own a vacuum sealer, you’ll have to buy one to use the immersion cooker.


My corned beef brisket cooked for eight hours at 170 degrees, and was juicy and perfectly cooked. Although sketchy time-and-temperature data came with my sous vide cooker, I used a more detailed chart I found on the Internet. I also scoured sites for the lowdown on sous vide and food safety, given that meat is cooked for a long time at a fairly low temperature. No problem. Although variables such as length of cooking time vs. temperature vs. thickness of meat come into play, my settings were safe for a whole brisket.

I am interested to hear about the favorite cuts others cook by the sous vide method. Must steaks be thick? What time and temperature do you use, and how long can you hold the steak at that temperature before it overcooks? Is there any point in cooking vegetables in this manner?

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Brie soufflé; corned beef; baked penne with ground beef and walnuts in tomato cream sauce.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Half of a spicy Asian salad and a cup of chili (yuck) at Panera; wonton soup and my favorite chili pork wontons at House of Hunan in Fairlawn; a hamburger with grilled onions, mustard and pickles at Bob’s Hamburg in Akron (as good as ever); shrimp lettuce wraps with pickled cauliflower at Portage Country Club in Akron.

THE MAILBAG

From L.R.:
Help! All of my local honey is crystalizing. I heated it as directed and it was OK for awhile but now it has crystalized again!! Am I doing something wrong?

Dear L.R.:
You aren’t doing anything wrong. As I understand it (from a quick chemistry lesson on a honey site), how fast/slow it crystalizes varies between types of honey. The process has to do with the ratio of glucose to fructose, the two types of sugar in honey, and this varies depending on the type of bee. Age can play a role, too. I have a jar that does this and it is annoying. Sorry, but just keep heating.

From Donna G.:
If you are ever in North Royalton, you need to stop in to Kavanna Social Kitchen.Their motto is “Taste. sip. share. repeat.” The food is fantastic and shareable. They are only open evenings Tuesdays through Saturdays. Check them out on Facebook. I have probably been there 20 + times. Varied menu including such delicacies as frog legs! You won’t be disappointed!

Dear Donna:
Thanks for the tip. I have been puzzled about the burgeoning “Social” phenomenon. In Cleveland, there’s the Twist Social Club and Prosperity Social Club. There’s the Social 8 in Akron’s Merriman Valley and Leo’s Italian Social in Cuyahoga Falls. When did “social” start serving as shorthand for “restaurant” and why?

The trend has been surging in California (naturally) for at least half a decade. The owner of a “social” there in 2015 described it in the San Francisco Chronicle as “Not quite a restaurant and not quite a bar … something in between.”

The online Urban Dictionary defines the Social as “Generally people eating, drinking, talking, laughing in a shared environment. A place to find Community.”

Legally, a non-profit social club is tax-exempt, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. I think the term is used to evoke a friendly neighborhood place where everyone knows your name. Appleby’s tried that and the chain is about as “neighborhood” as Walmart.

If you want to visit a REAL Social, go to spaghetti night at the Carovillese Club or the Italian Club in the North Hill area of Akron, or the fish fry on Friday night at the Polish Club. Just type in “ethnic club” on a search engine to discover exactly what these polished restaurants are trying to evoke. If you merely want a friendly neighborhood restaurant, you could go to one that’s been in business for decades such as the great Dontino’s in Cuyahoga Falls, whose patina is real. Like, 69 years real.

I’m not against new restaurants, just artifice. And, of course, chains. That said, there’s always room on my dance card for a new locally owned restaurant, which Kavana Social Kitchen definitely is.

From Kathy K.:
I was hoping you could help me locate a recipe that featured a favorite dish of the late pro baseball player, Thurman Munson. It featured beef tenderloin and I believe shrimp and possibly additional seafood. My family would like me to make it again for Christmas Eve dinner. Sadly, I can’t find the recipe. I would greatly appreciate any help or suggestions that you can offer.

Dear Kathy:
I’ve never heard of that recipe. Was it served at the former Bill Crocker’s Restaurant? I remember Frog Legs Thurman Munson but not beef tenderloin. Can anyone help?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s