Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Baby/Baked Pasta Exchange (BAKED ZITI)

Okay, so I made a lot of meat sauce- if you read the last blog.

I was in a sentimental way and when I am like that watch out; you're going to get fed.  Again, I repeat.  My hunger the last three days: TERRIFIC.  This is insane.  All I can do is taste the cool in the air and my body is screaming for starch.  Warm.   Hot.  Filling.  ME WANT FOOD NOW.  That is the constant roar in my ears.  Insatiable.   More to do with mental hunger I think than this physical one that seems to be rearing it's head.   But yes, there is a need to feed and be fed playing out.  What to do but roll with it.

Worse (or better) depending on your mood: it's cool enough these evenings to run a stove and right now while I type a batch of homemade granola bars is filling the house with the wicked stench of butter, oats, brown sugar and cranberries.  It's smells like a big ass cookie in here and my cat is asleep under the desk by my feet and some kid across the gangway in the apartments next door is playing a recorder.  Funny little end of summer night.  Fall is round the corner, kids  Better pull out those sweaters and socks.  (And who the hell plays a recorder at 10:30 pm?)  Love the city and all her noisy inhabitants.  And except for the jaunty note or trill on that blasted recorder, it is quiet.  A few TVs.  A woman on the porch with her cell phone.  Sigh.  Why is it that no one thinks you can hear them on the porch?   It echos like hell.   And people talking late at night are often drunk and thus louder!   At least no one making love.  That can be so unnerving sometimes. Nothing worse than sitting alone in the dark and be penned somewhere innocently when that happens.   Especially waking up to it.  You have to acknowledge it and then heave that old "ho hum" I'm not listening declaration "lalalala" whilst the rhapsody of bed springs beat on.  I mean it's a fact of life and nothing to be ashamed of but no one wants to listen to it when they aren't involved. 

(I regret instantly any occasion when someone was forced to listen to my antics.  I know you're out there and I'm sorry.  Oy.  Not a quiet girl myself.  Oh dear.)       

It was my bad (amusing luck) once in college to be beset by a case of insomnia that lasted a few painful weeks.  One night - no matter what room in the house I went to (someone in the upstairs/downstairs apartment) was going at it.  It was ridiculously funny and tragic at the same time.  The whole house was humming: try the veal!  But seriously - the pathos of trying to find one small corner where I wasn't forced to listen to someone humping: it was a cosmic burlesque joke.  Alone, frustrated, single --- that wasn't enough....oh no, I had to wake up, wake up mind you when falling asleep was the hardest task ever, wake out of a dead calm to the horror of the bedroom ceiling shaking and a hideous cacophony of aerobic bedroom gymnastics.  There are certain indignities that make even the humorless take an aside (face the screen ala Ferris Bueller) and look to the skies with a complete WTF expression which is akin only to a pie in the face --- or the moment when you see the pie coming.  Especially when it seemingly never ends.   This couple was clearly athletic, invested, and knowledgeable enough to hammer each other for 15+ minutes without end.  Or until I finally called uncle and went to the living room.   But that first scene of pathos eroded into sheer comedy by the time I made it to the couch, sat down and sighed......only to hear another couple downstairs, and then went into the dining room to hear another; and so forth - till, shaking my head, I went to the kitchen to started a pot of coffee.  And then shazam.  "Did I hear??"  Thinking, "noooooo----????????? is it?  No?!  Are they having a fucking orgy up there???"   And then imaging my rather average looking female college students/friends who lived both upstairs and down and wondering how the hell there were all getting nailed simultaneously?  What the hell was going on with the moon that so many people where screwing in proximity???   Proximity to Me!?!  Then laughing mercilessly at myself for thinking that.  At least Mr Coffee was loud enough to blast out any residual noises I imagined were going on.  I remember crying, while the coffee pot gurgled.  Not real tears but the sort of bleary, drippy eyes one can get when you are so overtired you can't sleep.   Nope,  I doubt I will ever forget that long morning, where I sat finally on the quiet stoop off the kitchen porch in Bloomington, IL.  Drinking one of my first "adult" cups of coffee, watching a man delivering Sunday papers.  And realizing with glum aplomb and resignation that my untainted youth was gone.  And now that makes me snicker.  How droll and over dramatic I was, even at 21.  To this day whenever I hear a neighbor making love, I remember that morning and sigh. "Good morning, Bloomington, Illinois you infernal despot of humanity, I greet thee!"   

Oh but I do wax on.   Still the noises one hears when one is alone.  Like I swear there are mice in the wall.  The cats look up with eyes like saucers when I hear this in the living room here late at night.  And then there's always the distinct possibility that you only think you are hearing some things.  Or are you??  Anyway for those of you who live in the city there is a sound when most people are sleeping that bleeds through the rest of the diffuse noise.  I don't know if this is the collective energy in the ether of our dreams or if as poppa Jack K would say, the sound of the unborn breathing.  But it is there and I have heard it.  And it's at these times, like now, that I most enjoy writing. 

Back to the meat sauce.  Well a vat of it went down stairs to Erik and Alex -- soon to be new parents.  Due date was yesterday.  Figured they needed to kill a little time in the great wait.  So they got some.  And then I figured, since I broadcast it anyway from last blog that a BAKED ZITI was in order.  So off I went to the Devon Market and pulled into that hot mess of a grocery store after work on Monday.   Which was perfect since I had just run my first 18 miler --- and suffice to say, it was a rest day which means I move slow all day long and dream about eating.  So I grabbed a giant container of ricotta, some pecorino, and went home and bake me up some ziti.  I baked two in tandem and threw the whole lot together like a super hero (under thirty minutes).  I then called Wendy and announced that the Rogers Park Commission on New Parents and Sleep Deprivation (RP CNPSD) had thoughtfully arranged for a BABY/BAKED PASTA EXCHANGE.   And we scheduled for the next day. 

Now if you don't have a BABY/BAKED PASTA EXCHANGE in your neighborhood - you should start one.  You need one over zealous cook who is baby mad and childless to ply tired parents with dinner.  You arrive, you tell the weary ones, the parents, to fire up the store and get to doing small tasks while you hold and coo the fussy little one.  They get a little time to clean, do laundry, talk to an adult and then finally sit down and eat.  You get a bit of one on one with the innocent looking adorable bundle of joy that is going to keep your friends awake all night.  They get a litte care and tending and dinner for the bargin.  You go home with the glow of baby love.  Win win all around.

Baked Ziti

Take three bags of pasta  --- 16oz and boil per instructions.  Strain.  Shells seem to be my preferred fav...they crunch up delightfully and hold enough cheese to get to that crisp state on top.

Mix 2 lb container of ricotta w/two eggs, salt, cup of fresh parsley (chopped) and 1/2 cup of parmesan.  I also add some fresh ground pepper to this.  This mixture is good enough to eat and actually for those who remember -- Leona's in Chicago, used to serve a ricotta/parsley mixture with their bread.  Very tasty.

Preheat to 350.  The whole thing cooks for about 45 min to an hour.  Depending on the density of the mixture and your preferred doneness.  Me, I go for a crunchy top.  Best part in my book.  But some like it wetter.  It's flexible...

Take two 9x13 lasagna dishes/bake ware - line with foil.  Dump the pasta equally between the two and stir together with the ricotta mixture. It will be an ugly clump.  No matter.  Add meat sauce as much or as little as you like.  The more sauce, the more cheese you need.   The concoction will be dense.  You should have shredded cheese (approximately 1 lb of mozzarella at bare minimum) for each --- but I often kill off the dregs of any left over cheese I may have around.  The secret for my Baked Zita is that I like it really cheesy.   The top itself must be covered in cheese and then the whole thing baked w/foil on top till the end when you uncover and let the top get to it's desired crispness.  Now sometimes I get fancy and add sauteed garlic, spinach, kale, onions, onions, onions.   Roasted red pepper.  This is hamburger helper for the oven.  Anything goes.  I mean the only thing better is simply making homemade mac and cheese by making a roux and then adding the cheese and fresh herbs and hearing people hit the floor.  But as long as you have cheese (ricotta) to get that richness and then an assortment of cheeses which marry well with the noodles and meat/vegetables - you really can't screw up.  Even a bad baked ziti is better than no baked ziti.  And when the coin is tight you can always live on one of these bad boys for a good long week; reheating and adding and re adding cheese till the very last (and I think) best part is eating the last portion with all the glorious burnt cheese pieces left over to pick on.   Yeah, that is my chef d'slob's favorite part. Hands down.  There is a glory to eating the last bit of the baked ziti and picking off all the little burnts bits left in the pan  ----  a guilty little pleasure.  And if you cooked it, it is your right.  Enjoy without shame!

Also -- there aren't many who would refuse this gift -- for it is both homey and practical and just nice.   It is also heavy.  The most frequent comment I ever get is, "God is this thing heavy!"  For a dish of it will likely weight in over eight pounds, more if I'm toting a glass dish.  Rgh.  My friend Carol Allerton has surgery years back and I told her I would make a Kugel -- which is just another form of baked pasta.  I hauled one, somehow, on the brownline from Rockwell to Michigan Avenue to Fourth Presbyterian Church.  I think I rigged some sort of contraption with plastic bags and some how navigated, switched trains, and scooted down streets with the thing without blinking an eye because there are sometimes when you truly are on a missive from god when you deliver food.  But there I was, scuttling up the steps of the Chicago Avenue El at rush hour with the other commuters - and walking down Rush Street en route with my swinging 10 pound baked kugel proud as can be.  And on heels no less so I felt truly righteous.  Dressed women bearing kugels.  You don't stand a chance.  When Don Allerton went to pick it up, his pallid blue eyes almost bugged out of his bony skull.  "You carried that thing?"   To which I smiled drolly and walked away.

So if you have the time and inclination to do something nice and you start to feel that little hint in the air that summer is ending --- take up some time by delivering a Baked Ziti to someone who is in need - whoever that may be.  Call 'em up and say, hey -- hit that stove (350 degrees) cause I've got something for dinner.  When you arrive, dinner cooks itself and a little good company is shared.  That is the magic of the Baked Ziti.

Acts of God part II to follow.  (the perfect granola bar)

Monday, 23 August 2010

Switching Teams (an ode to the wondrous meat sauce of old)

It happens.

And yes I am being a bit tongue in cheek perhaps, but there comes a time when the issue is forced and one must claim one tribe over the other.  Till that inevitable fork in the road appears, we think we're on the right path.  And then looming before us a great choice.

And generally there is no turning back.   

Oh there can be swaps, when one team calls back a lost one to the fold.  Or the odd ball adventure or two that means you were uninhibited.  But there are but two camps, kids.  And those pesky players who insist they can happily live in between these two worlds can pucker up and kiss my NOW unchafed tuckas cause you are either a bicyclist or a runner.  And them there's the facts.  The awakening will be vast and will shake you to to core.  But in the end, you choose.  You have to.  The road knows and so do we  - if we claim it.  So yes these last few weeks I've come to realize that I woke up a runner and my bike is parked and dusty for more than a season.  So there you have it.  She who once had two dharma wheels to spin now uses her legs alone to guide her cross the landscape.  WTF?

You can snicker but this is a seminal change.  My tree ring for this year ---- dramatic.

And of course any bike story inevitably leads back to Dru.  And that's a long story, kids --- and one I think I'll have to share down the line.  But leaving the bike is in essence leaving Dru.  And till I can muster the courage to write that chapter down properly and truly observe it...let us please eat.  I'm tired.  My weary legs have crossed 18 big ones today and I'm simmering a meat sauce on the stove because 1) I'm always famished!;  2) it's finally cool enough to have the damn stove on; 3) it's one of those days that there ain't much in the larder and we're on a mission from God.

Also, since I've been musing about my old life ----  when my bike was my great love, it is appropriate to dine thus -- as we lived almost exclusively then on the pauper's standby - pasta.  And once in a blue moon, we'd get our hands on some ground beef and amp it up a bit.  It was never great but always filling.  And we ate it as is life depended on it because we were making pennies and we really couldn't afford anything else.  Plus today was a day I needed to face the dreary remains of last week's shopping and try to do something reasonable with the stuff.  So this humble sauce is an odd to the old life - although a bit better. I think I've done a good job today with this.  It's a happy melange of old cans of stewed tomatoes, paste, shallots, onions, kalamata olives, farmers market garlic (not from China!!!) fried up in beautiful Turkish olive oil (Sultan -- a very good value and truly fruity), fresh basil, and about two pounds of ground chuck previously cooked.  I didn't have any cheese rinds so I threw in a hunk of old manchego and fried down another pepper or two from the vegetable bin with a few scrappy onions.  In a bit, I'll add some red pepper and more basil and keep cooking this baby down till the house smells divine.   And maybe I'll put this over some pasta and bake it when the cooler winds come.   I love reheating baked pasta till it the last of it gets all crunchy.  But then that's me....

And maybe while that's cooking after work some night this week, I'll sit back and start up the next batch of something to share...........
Till then, pass the Parmesan and tuck in.

About Me

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Chicago, Illinois, United States
A post modern crone, living in an urban fairy tale set in Rogers Park. Two parts story telling -- one part practical kitchen/spell magick.