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A Feast for Celebrating
Birthdays and other reasons for joy
It’s my partner’s birthday and The Bittman Project’s too, so I thought I’d kick off this week’s What’s for Dinner? with a celebratory feast of skillet pork chops and pickled peppers — or a vegetarian ragu that’s a delicious swap; roasted squash; fennel and orange salad, and a birthday cake.
It’s not particularly relaxing cooking for someone who cooks for a living: well, bakes — since my partner is a baker. But if I keep it simple and buy good ingredients things turn out pretty well and I have fun in spite of myself.
Fennel and Orange Salad
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes
A classic, easy salad that seems fancy despite how simple it is to make.
1 pound fennel (1 large or 2 small bulbs)
3 small sweet oranges or tangerines
1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice
Olive oil for drizzling
1. Trim and core the fennel and cut into thin slices, or shave it super thin on a mandoline. Reserve some of the most tender fronds for garnish.
2. Squeeze the juice from one of the oranges, pour it over the fennel, add salt and lime juice, and let it sit for up to several hours while you prepare the other oranges.
3. Peel any remaining oranges and slice into wheels; then slice into half-moons and remove any pits and tough, fibrous material. Add the oranges and reserved fronds to the fennel, toss, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Serve drizzled with olive oil.
— Recipe from How to Cook Everything: Completely Revised Twentieth Anniversary Edition
Skillet Pork Chops with Pickled Peppers
I took this basic pork chop recipe and added chopped pickled peppers: You can pick up a jar of roasted pickled bell peppers or cherry peppers, or whatever kind of peppers you like. Once you’ve scrapped the bits from the bottom of the pan in this recipe, add the peppers just long enough so they’re heated through.
Makes: About 4 servings
Time: 50 minutes
A food processor is essential to get the texture right for this hearty sauce. You can make substitutions as the seasons change, like swapping out the celery root for fennel in the spring, eggplant in the summer, and parsnips in the fall.
1 onion, chopped
4 large carrots, chopped
8 ounces celery root, peeled and chopped
8 ounces celery, chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled
8 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup bread crumbs (preferably fresh) or panko
1 cup tomato paste
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 pound rigatoni or other cut pasta
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley for garnish
1. Put the onion, carrots, celery root, celery, and garlic in a food processor with 4 tablespoons of oil. Pulse until the vegetables are ground but not pureed.
2. Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook until they’re crisp, dark, brown, and sizzling, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. When it’s hot, add the vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion becomes translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, lower the heat, and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture darkens, 8 to 12 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally until the sauce thickens, 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When the water boils, salt it and add the pasta. Stir occasionally, and start tasting after 5 minutes. When the pasta is tender but not mushy, drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce in the skillet, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring constantly until the sauce is steaming, 1 to 2 minutes. If the sauce gets too dry as it heats, add the reserved cooking water, a tablespoon at a time. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with the parsley and bread crumbs and serve.
Spiced Winter Squash
Rick is a baker so for me to knock myself out with something more sophisticated is not the way to go here, so I made a traditional birthday cake. I used three layers of yellow cake, lemon curd for the layers, and vanilla frosting — with sprinkles.
Makes: Enough for a 2- or 3-layer cake or a sheet cake
Time: 45 minutes
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) butter, softened, plus more for greasing
2 cups cake flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
8 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour the bottom and sides of two 9-inch cake pans, or a 13x9-inch baking pan.
2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl.
3. Use an electric mixer to cream the butter until smooth, then gradually add the sugar. Beat until light in color and fluffy, 3 or 4 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, then the vanilla. Stir the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture by hand a little at a time, alternating with the milk. Stir just until smooth.
4. Turn the batter into the pan (s) and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the batter. Let the cake (s) cool in the pans for 5 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to finish cooling.
5. Frost or glaze as you like and store loosely covered or in a cake dome for a couple days.
Makes: Enough frosting and filling for one 8-inch 3-layer cake, one 9-inch 2-layer cake, or 2 dozen cupcakes.
Time: 10 minutes
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick) softened
4 cups confectioners’ suger
6 tablespoons cream or milk, plus more if needed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Use an electric mixer to cream the butter in a large bowl. Gradually work in the sugar, alternating with the cream and beating well after each addition.
2. Stir in the vanilla and salt. If the frosting is too thick to spread, add a little more cream, a teaspoon at a time. If it’s too thin (unlikely but possible), refrigerate; it will thicken as it hardens.
Makes: About 2 cups
Time: 15 to 30 minutes
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
4 egg yolks
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1. Whisk all the ingredients together in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking almost constantly, until the mixture thickens and reaches between 175° and 180°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 minutes. Don’t let it boil. (It will make a thick coating on the back of a spoon.)
2. Remove from the heat. While it’s still hot, pour the curd through a fine-meshed strainer into a bowl and let it cool for a bit. Serve warm or chilled. Lemon curd will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.