Cannellini Beans with Spinach

Cannellini Beans with Spinach  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Cannellini Beans with Spinach | Image: Laura Messersmith

After an odd few days of 80 degree temperatures in New York we’re back to the weather I associate most with late October. Weather more in the vein of “a dark and stormy night” full of windy breezes that swirl the leaves and pulse with energy straight from Ghostbusters.

It’s days like today that absolutely call for something simple, warming, and earthy. A dinner that calls to mind the safety of hearth and home; simmering merrily on the stovetop through the afternoon then bringing family to gather around the table. As written this is a dish reminiscent of a Tuscan stew – creamy beans, bright lemon, leafy spinach – but with a bit more chicken stock could easily translate into a wintery soup. Even better? With just a quick swap in of vegetable stock for the broth you’ll have a fantastic main course that I’d be proud to serve to any vegetarian.

Cannellini Beans with Spinach  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Cannellini Beans with Spinach | Image: Laura Messersmith

Stews always improve with a bit of time to think about what they’ve done, and so this is also a dish that I would absolutely make extras of and squirrel away in the freezer for use this winter when something cozy is just the ticket. Perfect with a slice of crusty bread toasted and rubbed with garlic or a sprinkle of parmesan melted on top.

Cannellini Beans with Spinach (serves: 8)

1 1/2 cups dried cannellini beans
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise; plus 2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 sage leaves
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for serving
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 bunches mature spinach, ends trimmed
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Place the dried beans in a large French oven or bowl and cover with double the amount of water. Cover and allow to soak for 16-24 hours at room temperature.

Drain the beans and return them to the pot. Bring beans, head of garlic, sage, 3 tablespoonsolive oil, and 6 cups chicken broth to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat, add 1 teaspoon kosher salt and simmer gently until beans are creamy all the way through but skins are still intact, 35–45 minutes. Some of the beans will break down slightly and thicken the broth. Let cool while you move onto the spinach.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large deep sauté pan over medium. Cook crushed garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring, just until garlic is golden, about 1 minute. Working in batches, add spinach, letting it wilt slightly before adding more, and cook, tossing often, until leaves are just wilted, about 5 minutes; season with salt.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer beans to sauté pan with spinach and cook, tossing gently, until beans are warmed through. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, and 1/4 cup bean cooking liquid and toss, adding more cooking liquid if needed, until coated. The mixture should be closer to a sauce than a soup in consistency. Be careful not to over cook or the beans will begin to break down. Taste and season with salt as needed. Serve drizzled with oil and a slice of toasted crusty bread.

Do Ahead: Beans can be cooked 3 days ahead. Keep in cooking liquid; cover and chill. Cook spinach and seasonings when ready to serve.

Re-written and lightly adapted from Bon Appetit’s Cannellini Beans with Spinach by Rita Sodi & Jody Williams.

Cannellini Beans with Spinach  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Cannellini Beans with Spinach | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes! I used a 6 qt. French oven, large deep sauté pan, fine mesh sieve, medium cutting board, chef’s knife, liquid measuring cup, slotted spoon, microplane grater, and measuring spoons.

Cannellini Beans with Spinach  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Cannellini Beans with Spinach | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells | Image: Laura Messersmith

Between magazines, Pinterest, Instagram, and cookbooks at any given time I feel like there are about 1,000 recipes I’m dying to make. I try to be organized, but somehow there’s a notepad on my phone for those moments when inspiration strikes on the go (or as I’m drifting off to sleep), a Word document roughly organized by month/season, and of course multiple Pinterest boards all collecting ideas.

If I’m lucky I cook the recipe straightaway, but others I’m saving for the right occasion when the dish and the eaters are just meant for each other. That was the case here. I’ve been meaning to make this recipe from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook for nearly six months, rather a long time to wait.

As much as I love baked pasta dishes it’s tough when there are only two people to eat it, so there I am: waiting to make this recipe until the stars aligned and we could lure some folks to the neighborhood for dinner. Thank goodness too, because this dish is everything I hoped it would be - like homemade mac and cheese taken to a grown-up place by the addition of lemon, white wine, and sautéed artichokes. If that's not reason enough, how about this: you can completely assemble the dish up to a day in advance and bake it when you're ready to eat. A make ahead dish that feels special enough for company? Yes, please!

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells (serves 4-6)

Shell Ingredients:
25-30 jumbo pasta shells (about a 12-ounce box, I used Barilla)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large onion, chopped small
18 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and patted dry
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup (1 1/4 ounces) finely grated Romano cheese
1 cup (1 1/2 ounces) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Sauce Ingredients:
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
3 teaspoons (2-3 cloves) minced garlic
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Make the Filling:

Melt butter in a heavy 12-inch skillet and cook it until it turns nutty and brown, stirring occasionally to keep the solids moving on the bottom of the pan. Once it is a nice nutty brown, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, then the onions and cook them until they are lightly brown and caramelized, about 7 minutes. Add the artichoke hearts and cook them until they are softened a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and cook it until it completely disappears.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly, before transferring it to the bowl of a food processor. Add both cheeses, the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and black pepper and pulse in the food processor until roughly chopped. You want a mixture with some texture, not a puree.

Note: If you don’t have a food processor, then make sure to cut your onions quite small and chop the artichokes on the fine side before cooking. Follow the instructions as written, then once the filling cools mix it in a large bowl.

Cook the Pasta:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the shells just shy of al dente. Check the box to see if there are cook times for shells that will be baked - Barilla recommends 9 minutes, which was perfect. Drain and toss with a teaspoon or two of olive oil, to keep them from sticking.

Make the Sauce:
While the shells are cooking, melt the butter in a medium saucepan (or the wiped out pot you made the artichoke filling in, if you’re into spending less time scrubbing pots) over medium-high heat. Once melted, add the flour all at once and whisk it until smooth. Add the milk, a small glug at a time, whisking constantly so no lumps form. Once the mixture has reached a batter-like consistency, you can begin adding the milk in larger pours at a time, whisking the whole time. Once all the milk is added, add the garlic and bring the sauce to a boil, stirring frequently. Once boiling, it will immediately begin to thicken. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for two to three minutes before stirring in the ricotta, lemon juice, salt and black pepper, and chopped parsley. Adjust salt, pepper and lemon to taste.

Assemble the Dish:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Layer about half the sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Press a generous tablespoon of artichoke filling inside each cooked shell – a cookie scoop will be useful – so that the shell is full, but the sides can still meet. I found that resting the pasta on a cutting board using one hand to hold the edges apart and the other to scoop worked best. Nest each pasta shell in the sauce, seam up. Spoon the remaining sauce over the shells. Cover the dish with foil and bake it for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and bake it for a final 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Individual Servings – Divide about half the sauce among 6 oven safe baking dishes (I used 16 ounce ramekins), divide the stuffed shells (5-6 shells fit snugly) among each dish and top with the remaining sauce as above. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees F, followed by 5 minutes uncovered.

Make Ahead – Assemble the dish (or dishes) and cover each in foil. Refrigerate up to 24 hours. Add 3-5 minutes to the original baking times.

Recipe re-written and slightly adapted from Deb Perelman’s Artichoke Stuffed Shells in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (pg. 125 ) link via Bon Appetit.

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, with organization. I used one large sauce pan, one large, deep sauté pan, a medium food processor, 9x13” baking dish (or 6 individual - the dishes pictured are Corningware 16 ounce ramekins), a colander, and a medium cutting board.

For tools I used a chef’s knife, microplane zester, a liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, 1 tablespoon cookie scoop, rubber spatula, whisk, and a ladle or large spoon.

The Verdict:
Considering how fantastic the flavors are I fervently hope your stars hurry up and get their ducks in a row, because no one (even the artichoke adverse) should have to wait long to eat this dish. I bumped up the lemon zest a bit and added the parsley to the sauce, rather than sprinkling it on top to give the dish a subtle fresh note and make sure it didn’t become too heavy. Seconds were had by all and some simply roasted Brussels sprouts made the perfect accompaniment. All in all, a successful mid-winter dinner!

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Lemony Artichoke Heart Stuffed Shells | Image: Laura Messersmith

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Blueprint Lunch”

The Set-up: Ina is making lunch for the team working on her barn construction project.

The Menu: Avocado and Grapefruit Salad, California Iced Tea, Easy Lobster Paella, Shortbread Hammer Place cards

0:33 – I’ve decided to keep track of how many construction puns Ina uses, so far Blueprint Joke Count: 2.

1:12 – First up Shortbread Hammer Place cards. The name says it all – the cookies will be shaped like the tool and Ina will write each person’s name on a cookie.

2:28 – Ina says she loves to make shortbread dough all different ways. I need to work on establishing my go-to basic cookie dough; perhaps this is the one?

3:46 – Miguel is doing the table setting for the lunch party, so you know this is serious business. So far he’s made a table out of sawhorses, covered in painter’s drop cloth, and has copied the plans for the barn onto placemats. #crafty

4:05 – Ina’s back inside to make California Iced Tea, a combination of black tea and lemonade. I’ve only ever heard this called an Arnold Palmer, but maybe it’s tough to get that name cleared for TV.

5:20 – Note to self: add superfine sugar to the pantry of sugar options.

6:38 – California Iced Tea is in the fridge to chill before the lunch party and now it’s onto cutting out the place card cookies.

9:14 – Ina has chilled the shortbread dough for 30 minutes to allow it to relax and let the butter firm-up a little. I’ve also heard that it gives the flour time to absorb more of the moisture in the rest of the ingredients. No idea if that’s true.

10:27 – The cookies will bake on parchment paper and can I just say that parchment paper has been a total game-changer for me? I pretty much never put a baking sheet in the oven any more unless it has a parchment liner.

11:36 – Quick glance outside to see that Miguel is engaged in some sort of craft project before Ina gets started on the Easy Lobster Paella.

12:19 – The trick to making this paella easy is two-fold: 1. Do most of the cooking in the oven. 2. Use proteins that are already cooked, ie. lobster, kielbasa, so you don’t have to worry about varied cooking times/methods.

13:44 – Other advantages of this dish: you can sub other ingredients that are less expensive than lobster – personally I’d go for shrimp anyway – it doesn’t have to be served as soon as it’s done cooking, and it can be made in large quantities for a crowd.

14:53 – The rice (basmati if you’re wondering) and chicken stock are in the pot, now all into the oven lid on for 15 minutes.

18:32 – Quick stir, then lid off in the oven for an additional 15 minutes to allow some of the stock to evaporate. I am so curious to see how this turns out….

19:26 – Over to the Shortbread Hammer Place cards so that Ina can make icing to pipe the names on to the cookies.

20:45 – Piping now seems slightly less intimidating after my adventure with Woodland Gingerbread Cookies.

21:10 – Back outside to deliver the placecards and discover that Miguel’s craft project was a mobile of fabric swatches to hang from the pergola.

22:37 – To balance out the rich flavors in the paella Ina is pairing it with an Avocado and Grapefruit Salad.

23:21 – I’m with Ina, 90% of the avocados in supermarkets are too green to eat, which requires a little advanced planning to buy them, let them ripen, and then use them. 2-3 days is about right and then they start to go bad. #shortwindowofopportunity

24:48 – Salad is complete, and once again I have to hand it to Ina for transforming a super simple dish into something elegant.

27:00 – Love you Ina, but you just changed your pronunciation from British “pie-ella” to the Spanish “pi-ehya” and I can’t let that go un-remarked upon.

28:34 – Final touches to the paella: Pernod, diced cooked lobster and kielbasa, along with frozen peas all brought up to temperature. Yum.

29:55 – Lunch is served and Ina grills the team on how long until her barn will be finished. The answer: a lot sooner if we stop having these leisurely lunches. Umm, wrong answer if you want any more of Ina’s cooking!

Final Thoughts:
I am horrendous at cooking rice – it always turns out mushy. New Year’s Resolution 2016?

If someone could invent a device to accurately predict when an avocado will be ready to eat they’d have my sincere appreciation and I would absolutely buy one.

How does Ina manage to make a themed party seem so elegant and chic?

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I decided to make the Avocado and Grapefruit Salad, not because it’s particularly difficult, but because I reeeeally needed something summery and light to break up the monotony of winter, even the snow-free one we’re ‘enjoying’ here in New York. Here's what I learned through repetition:

Avocado Selection – I buy Haas avocados, which are a bit smaller than the brighter green Florida avocados and in my area are almost always sold under ripe in the store. I look for two signs when buying and make a call based on when I want to eat the avocado. 1. The color of the skin changes from dark green to a deeper greenish brown as the fruit ripens. I look for an evenly browned, but not blackened or shriveled skin. 2. The texture of an unripe avocado will be very hard and unyielding. I press very gently near the stem end and if it gives way a bit then I know it’s ripe and will be ready to eat within a day or two.

Citrus Segmenting/Supremeing – This is an excellent recipe to practice your supreming technique, a skill that will serve you well whenever citrus is involved. I recommend a 3-4” utility or paring knife, something easy to maneuver that you have firm control over.

Step 1: Cut a narrow slice off the top (stem end) and bottom of the grapefruit to reveal the interior of the fruit and create two flat sides.

Step 2: Place one flat side on the cutting board and slice vertically down the sides following the curve of the fruit to removing the grapefruit zest and pith in long strips. Do your best to leave as much of the flesh as possible.

Step 3: Trim off any remaining bits of pith from the grapefruit so that you can clearly see where the membranes divide the fruit into segments.

Step 4: Hold the grapefruit in one hand over a bowl and carefully cut vertically along both sides of each segment using the membranes as your guidelines until you reach the center of the grapefruit. The segments once released from the membranes will fall into the bowl.

Want a live demo? Here’s a video via Real Simple.

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Absolutely. A medium cutting board, utility knife, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons and a medium bowl or serving platter are all you need. C’est tout.

The Verdict:
This Avocado and Grapefruit Salad is incredible, mainly because these two ingredients are a match made in heaven. Creamy, rich, dense avocado was meant to hang out with bright, acidic, tender grapefruit. I went with pink grapefruit for it's slightly sweeter flavor and preppy color, but white grapefruit would work just as well. Yes, you could just eat these ingredients side by side, but the simple vinaigrette makes this feel more intentional and less like an afterthought. I served this salad along with Ina’s Panko Crusted Salmon (more on that next week) over baby kale leaves and it’s an excellent combination that makes healthy taste delicious and those eat-better-in-2016 resolutions feel attainable.

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad | Image: Laura Messersmith

Winter Greens Gratin

Winter Greens Gratin  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Winter Greens Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

It’s easy in the frenzy of holiday preparations to get caught up in more, more, more – more butter, more options on the sideboard, more going crazy trying to make everything perfect. I’ve been trying to resist being caught in that trap this year and focus instead on less. Not less care, just redirecting my effort into singular dishes that make a meal feel special. If it can be made ahead leaving more time on Thanksgiving Day for watching parades, playing board games and hanging with my family; even better.

This Winter Greens Gratin fills the bill on all accounts, but I won’t lie – it does take a voluminous amount of fresh kale and mustard greens, like possibly all the kale in Brooklyn. It’s a little intimidating at first, but slowly the mountain is tamed down to a manageable amount and then stirred together with cream steeped with garlic and thyme. Thankfully (intentional pun alert!) ninety percent of the prep can be done a day or two ahead and then layered in a baking dish to find it’s way into the oven at the appropriate moment. Mischief managed.

Winter Greens Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Winter Greens Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

Winter Greens Gratin (serves 8-10)

3 pounds (2 large bunches) lacinato kale
2 1/2 pounds (2 medium bunches) mustard greens
Kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups coarse fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, divided, plus 7 sprigs thyme
1 cup (2 large) thickly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon unsalted butter plus more for dish
2 cups half and half
7 garlic cloves, smashed
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice cubes.

Wash the kale and mustard greens carefully to remove any sand. Strip the leaves from the stalks and roughly chop in large pieces keeping the two types of greens separate.

Working in batches, drop 3-4 generous handfuls of the chopped kale into the boiling water. Use tongs to stir the leaves and cook for about 3 minutes. Transfer the kale with the tongs into the bowl of ice water and let cool for 1 minute. Remove the leaves from the ice water with your hands and squeeze as much water as possible from the leaves. Set aside on a cutting board, and repeat the process until all the kale is cooked.

Repeat the same process with all the mustard greens, cooking in the boiling water for 2 minutes per batch. Coarsely chop all the greens; you should have 6 cups tightly packed leaves. Discard the ice water and combine the kale and mustard greens in the bowl by loosening with your fingers. Set aside, or refrigerate in a food storage container.

Next prep the bread crumbs and cheeses in a mini food processor. Heat oil in a deep, 12 inch skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden and crispy, 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl allow to cool for a few minutes, then stir in Parmesan and 1 teaspoon thyme leaves. Set aside, or store in an airtight food storage container at room temperature.

***Greens and breadcrumbs can be made up to 2 days ahead.

To prepare the sauce, wipe out the skillet and melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until slightly softened and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer shallots to the bowl with greens.

Add half and half, garlic cloves, and thyme sprigs to same skillet; bring to a simmer. Cook until mixture is thickened and reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 10-12 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs and garlic cloves; stir in nutmeg. Season the mixture with kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste.

Pour the sauce over greens in bowl and toss with a fork to evenly coat the greens and shallots in the cream.

Lightly butter a 3 quart baking dish and spread the greens mixture into the dish. Sprinkle with the grated Gruyère, then top with the toasted breadcrumbs. Cover the dish with foil.

***Gratin can be assembled 1 day ahead and stored in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until filling is hot, about 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 10-20 minutes until cheese is melted, edges are bubbling, and breadcrumbs are golden brown. Garnish with the remaining 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves.

Lightly adapted and re-written from Bon Appétit’s Winter Greens Gratin.

Winter Greens Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Winter Greens Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
A challenge to your small kitchen cooking skills, but doable if you clear the decks before starting. I used a large sauce pan, a deep sauté pan, a mini-food processor, two large bowls, a medium baking dish, and a large cutting board. A pair of tongs, measuring spoons, a chef’s knife, microplane grater, a rubber spatula, and foil will round out the kit. Food storage containers will make life easier and save the need for both bowls.

The Verdict:
Winter Greens Gratin blends the best of creamed spinach with the crisp topping and sharp tang of homemade mac and cheese. The proportion of greens to dairy is perfect and as a result the herbaceous flavor of the kale and mustard greens is highlighted, not masked by the garlic-y cream sauce and cheeses. The toasted breadcrumbs add a little crunch and texture. I made this as a contribution to a Friendsgiving dinner last weekend and the emptiness of the baking dish told the tale. No one will have to be reminded to eat their greens with this gratin on the table.

Winter Greens Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Winter Greens Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith