HotM 12: Stews and Casseroles (Round-Up)

Hi Everyone! The seasons are changing and Spring is arriving before long in my part of the world, and while I can't wait for it to get here (I'm already dreaming of fava beans and big, lucious strawberries), I try to remember that it's important to live in the present and enjoy these last weeks of winter and wintertime food and experiences before they fade away...curling up under warm woolen blankets, reading books while sipping steaming hot cups of tea, cuddling in front of a crackling fire in the fireplace and the cozy comfort that sweaters and jeans and scarves offer against the crisp air. I know the incredibly diverse entries for this month's Heart of the Matter will help carry me through and give me something to curl up and relish these last few chilly, gray weeks of Winter with. I hope they give you some heart-healthy ideas for winter warming too!

A big thank you to everyone who participated this month, welcome to all of the new participants as well, and a special thanks to Bee at Jugalbandi who brought it to my attention that in my scattered-brained way, I posted the wrong email address on the announcement (my apologies for the inconvenience)! I've posted the entries in the order they arrived, and separated them into two catagories based on the titles you sent in - first "stews," followed by "casseroles," so that you can find whatever it might be that you're craving. Next month will be hosted by Ilva, which will be our 1 year anniversary for Heart of the Matter! Keep those wonderful recipes coming!

So without further adieu:


Melissa from Gluten Free For Good sent us her "Hearty" Bison and Vegetable Stew. As a nutritionist, this food nutritionista's blog is filled with great tips for how to eat smart and be healthy (including heart-healthy!), as well as the bonus that her recipes are also gluten free for those that follow a gluten free lifestyle. (*note: her recipe isn't up on her blog just yet, but keep an eye out for it soon, she's been busy...)

The Food Monkeys (and very cute couple), Joel and Amy, let us into their kitchen as they tried lentils for the first time - and fell for them! For their entry, they shared their yummy sounding recipe for a low-fat and low sodium Turkey Lentil Stew.

My co-host Ilva from Lucullian Delights sent in a comforting dessert stew, her Gingery Fruit Stew with Barley, which sounds like the perfect end to any winter meal!

Laurie is really in the heart of winter up in chilly and beautiful Alaska, and she takes us to Greece with her blog, Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska, as she shares her story and a Greek village dish called Chicken Kikkinistos with Potatoes.

Bee and Jai, the masterminds behind the vegetarian blog Jugalbandi, shared with us their recipe for Canary Beans with Fenugreek, filling us up on tidbits about the interesting ingredients too!

Tania, from The Candied Quince, offered up a recipe for a healthy and hardy version of a vegetarian Zuni Stew. This is her first time participating and we hope she'll keep coming back!

The three ladies over at Peanut Butter Etouffee, Doodles, Moon and the Maltese Parakeet (don't you just love those names?) sent in their recipe for a Mushroom Barley Stew that looks like it could warm up any heart.

Chris, from Mele Cote, really got to the "heart of the matter" with her step-by-step photographs and instructions for her heart-healthy Fish Stew (even served up on a very cute platter!).

Ann, over at Redacted Recipes, shared with us a recipe for her low-fat, low calorie and spicy Green Chicken Pazole and in her post, she goes into even more depth and shares some interesting health facts about hominy, one of the main ingredients!

Kimberly, a brand new blogger began her blog, Seasons Without Salt, with her very first post as an entry for this event (how's that for making us feel special!?). She'll be showing us all how to eat a low-sodium, heart-healthy diet on her blog and if her entry, Morrocan-Spiced Sweet Potato and Chickpea Stew is a taste of what's to come, then it sounds delicious!

Diane takes us on a Gluten Free Journey with her recipe for the gluten-free Stifado, a heart-happy classic Greek stew, redolent with lots of warm, comforting spices.


Sally sends us a one-dish meal that is gluten-, casein-, soy-, and egg-free, her Spaghetti Squash Casserole. Her blog, Aprovechar, is full of many allergen free recipes as well as a hefty dose of inspiration.

Anke, from the blog Vegan Bounty, presented us with her vegan Spinach-Squash Lasagna recipe. Believe it! This lasagna is actually 100% cholesterol free and very low fat, and it looks positively delicious.

Ilva also sent in a casserole in true Lucullian Delight form, using a few simple ingredients and coming out with a beautiful-looking dish. Check out her Oven Cooked Vegetable Casserole with Farro and Mushrooms.

My namesake, Michelle, at Greedy Gourmet sent in another one-pot dish with a fabulous- sounding recipe for Pork Sausage, Leek, Carrot and Butter Bean Casserole.

The hilarious Katie, from Thyme for Cooking entered her recipe for very comforting looking Italian Beef and Cabbage Casserole, even though she was traveling in chilly Minnesota! What a trooper! ;)

Johanna, from the vegetarian blog, Green Gourmet Giraffe, offered up her recipe for her Spicy Prune and Bean Casserole. I love the idea of using dried fruit in this hearty, savory dish!

From the Southern U.S. and food blog, Food for Laughter, Astra gives us a lightened up version of her childhood favorite, Grown-Up Tuna Casserole. This was her first time participating too and I hope we'll be seeing more of her in the future!

Miri, the author of the blog Peppermill, sent us her tagine recipe (which you can also cook in a casserole dish or even a slow-cooker!)f or Chickpea, Raw Mango and Apricot Tagine with Couscous. As an added bonus, she even tells us all about the benefits of apricots and chickpeas for heart health.


On Gaining an Understanding of Connectivity, Pocketbooks and People

We don’t have a lot of extra money. Sure, we get by. LB and I have some savings now, finally, which is nice – because for a long time, we didn’t. We basically lived life paycheck to paycheck, and for the most part still do (for when you make more, you spend more...and it always seems that life throws some unexpected expenses your way, like broken down cars or moving to a very expensive island in five weeks!), and that’s with two jobs. Each.

Yet, I can still justify (to myself, mind you, as LB is a sweetheart and doesn’t say anything about it) buying a gourmet food item here and there or a nice bottle of wine when I come across one I like. I buy high-quality food for our meals, mostly organic, and I’ll pay more for local ingredients too, especially if the humble farmer is willing to deliver organic eggs to our doorstep or sells us incredibly delicious hormone-free free-range pork like the gorgeous entire tenderloin we got recently from him:

This means that nearly as large a portion of our budget goes to food as it does to rent (yikes!). We have been known to buy wine to compliment a meal we’ll be having (usually on the recommendation of a very competent wine guru whom I completely trust), have spent upwards of $25 on appetizers (which we enjoyed thoroughly and completely, by ourselves, and “just because”), and I’ll often impulsively buy ingredients (or wine) at food festivals simply because they are there and I just might never see them again. All of this for one day (or meal) to be shared eating, drinking, and laughing. And you know what?

It’s worth it.

Do we have the extra money? Sort-of. We do each have two jobs. So, you could say we treat ourselves occasionally. But then again, the car needs fixed, there’s the move looming soon (very soon – another yikes!) in the future, there’s debt to be paid off and retirement to start saving for...so should we be spending our extra money? No. Could we spend less or settle for less? Probably. Will we? No...not while we’re in Eugene, anyhow (Hawaii might be a different story). I’ve tried to reason why this might be... why we might be so willing to spend our limited funds on food? Food is transient – you eat it, it’s gone. Some of it is wasted (think of those vegetables sitting in the crisper...). Is it the taste of the food? Is it a fear of what goes into our bodies? Is it a desire to spend, spend, spend, consume, consume, consume? No, no, no...well, maybe a little yes on the question of taste and pesticide-laden foods, but for the most part: No. What is it then?

It’s the experience.

It’s the connection with each other and with other people. The connection shared with our friends and family at the table, over a glass of wine or some incredible cheese – elbows up, smiles and laughter all around. It’s the connection with the people that sold the food to us, with the land and the farmers that grew it - many we have met here and many we know share the same soil and the same practices and philosophies as we do - and the hands and hard work that created it. It’s the romantic notions of how an amazing meal should unfold - not necessarily how it’s “supposed” to be in the imagination of Martha Stewart or Miss Manners (ie. perfectly folded napkins, fine china, proper couture...), but the idea that when we have that wine again or that cheese or that chestnut stuffing some Thanksgiving down the road, it will recall the memory of all the connected experiences once more...that we might remember the encounter of buying the food or wine, the shared familiarity of eating it... and it's the belief that later, we might just gain a few extra moments of happiness from that day, even though it is in the past.

Human beings are blessed with memories – we are the only creatures that live in our past as much as our present. The memories of the people we have known, of history and of places we have been, of things that make our hearts sing and our mouths speechless – these are all a huge part of who we are and the stories we share with others. Take wine tasting, for example. The adventure of traveling to the hills of the Willamette Valley, the whole experience of sipping, of quiet afternoons spent talking (sometimes about the wine, most of the time not) and gazing out across the grape vines. And the way a bottle in the wine rack at home calls forth the memory of being there. You just can’t get that when you buy a box of wine at your local convenience store or similarly, from an out-of-season, perfectly round, cardboard tomato at the grocery store (not that I haven’t bought my own fair share of those, of course).

You see, I buy more when I connect with the people who are selling me the food or wine. It’s not because I’m tipsy and thus looser with my money (well, I keep telling myself that). It’s not because I’m rich and have the money to spend (I don't). It’s because I so enjoyed the experience of being there and of talking to a certain tasting room manager about the Library of Congress releasing the Years of Bounty exhibit that I ended up with that $25 bottle of 2004 Pinot Noir from High Pass Vineyards (and oh yes, I have ended up with far more expensive bottles of wine other times and at other places, each one unique not only in taste but in memories) that I won’t be going out for a movie the end of this month, or that my savings is more meager than might be thought respectable at almost 30 years of age. But do I care right now? No. Will I later? Perhaps. But the memories will be what I remember, and I would never trade those for more money.

When I think of the people and places that I will miss the most when leave here and move to Hawaii in 5 short weeks, I realize that for the most part they are all connected to food or wine. My closest friends and I have spent an incredible number nights sharing bottles of wine together, my winery friends are near and dear to my heart, and the places I will miss the most are the farmer's market, the restaurants, and the food stores where I have spent so much time over the last several years – getting to know the proprietors, the bartenders, the waitresses and the farmers. Not to mention the incredible local ingredients...hazelnuts, chanterelles, wild salmon, and so many more (and Pinot – oh God, they don’t make Pinot in Hawaii!). At least there will be new and wonderful people and things to explore, and I do find solace (and excitement) in that.

Ultimately, I think that food and wine are as much about people as they are about taste – people eating, drinking, talking, blogging, telling stories and connecting with each other. The people I share food with (or the experience of making it or buying it) are what make it all worthwhile. I think that’s why I fell in love with all things culinary, with blogging, and with my job at the winery. Because truly, when it comes down to it, Life is really all about the people we share it with.

This is a recipe for a roasted fresh ham (ie. a "ham," or pork leg roast, that has not been cured). The recipe is simple, easy and pretty enough to serve to company so that you can enjoy those precious moments (or hours) at the table with the people you adore. The pork leg roast came from Paul Atkinson, who owns and runs Laughing Stock Farm locally. The pigs were cared for with love and respect, and it shines through in the meat...it's the best pork you can find in Eugene, in my opinion, and we've been buying meat and fresh eggs from Paul (who graciously delivers everything to our doorstep) for over two years now. There's nothing like it, and I will most certainly miss it when we leave!

Roasted Fresh Ham with Onion Jus, serves 6
**amounts are approximate, so use your intuition too!

1 fresh pork leg roast (approx. 2-3 lbs)
1 tbsp. salt
several grinds of fresh pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp dry rubbed sage
2 tsp herbs de provence
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup water
1 large sweet onion, thickly sliced

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Rinse the pork and pat it dry (thoroughly dry) with paper towels. Carve diagonal lines into the fat cap on top of the pork roast approximately 1 inch apart - you can do this both directions to make a diamond pattern (like I did), but it's not necessary. Try not to carve into the meat! Place the sliced onions in the bottom of a roasting dish or pan. Mix the herbs, salt, pepper and olive oil in a small bowl to form a sort of wet paste, then rub the paste into the meat on all sides and place it in the roasting dish on top of the onions. Pour 1/2 cup of the wine and 1/2 cup of the water into the bottom of the dish.

Put the roasting dish in the oven and roast for 30 minutes at 425F. Turn the oven down to 350F, and roast for approximately 1.5 hours more (or until the internal temperature reaches about 155F), turning it around once and putting a sheet of foil over the top of the roast if it begins to burn (ours didn't). As the wine and water evaporate, add the rest of each to the bottom of the pan and baste the roast occasionally to keep it most.

Remove the roast to a plate and cover it with foil, letting it rest for about 20 minutes before slicing. Meanwhile, pour the juices and onions into a small saucepan and let it simmer gently until it reduces and begins to thicken - you can also blend a few of the onions into the sauce to make it thicker or add a bit of arrowroot or cornstarch in some stock if you want a heartier sauce. Enjoy!


A Hearty Casserole: HotM 12

“...the heart is an organ of fire.” ~The English Patient

As human beings, we live by our hearts – both physiologically and emotionally. The heart is what keeps our blood pumping through our veins and arteries, propelling us through the world and allowing us to seek out the very things we desire with it. Emotionally, it is the base of the soul and the source of who we are – the dichotomy of feeling things with our hearts or trying to analyze them with our heads, and choosing between the two, is a conundrum that captivates even the most callused of individuals. The heart and the emotions emanating forth from it have captured the imagination of poets and artists alike for centuries and will continue on for as long as poets and artists exist. Its location in our chests is the very place we feel the blossom of love and the poignant pain of losing it (even if it is our brain that ultimately controls such things). And in certain philosophies, the heart is the utmost center of our being – and thus no other organ has such profound importance.

We cannot live without our hearts. Physiologically and emotionally, we must protect them in order to go on living. While the complexities of the emotional heart are far too great to go into here and warrant far more in-depth discussion, scientific research shows that there is much we can do to protect the physical heart. Low sodium, lots of antioxidants, low saturated fat, lots of fruits and vegetables – we’ve been collecting dos and don’ts for quite some time. And Joanna, Ilva and I have been collecting heart-healthy recipes for nearly a year now for the Heart of the Matter – our blog and archive of healthy eating to protect your heart. This month, the theme was Stews and Casseroles, and the heart-healthy dish I’m offering up is a Cauliflower and Rice Curry Casserole. It’s gluten-free, low in saturated fat, packed with veggies (vegetarian, even) and heart-healthy ingredients (like pecans and mustard greens) and better still, it’s delicious.

Like love, there are some dishes that are difficult and take time to develop, but the end result is worth it. This Indian-style casserole takes a similar approach. Be aware that it’s almost an hour of chopping, measuring, making dirty dishes and wondering if you’re doing it right (I was sure there wasn't enough rice and too many mustard greens). But in the end when it finally comes together and out of the oven, all tender and steaming and with just the right amount of spice, everything cooked down and flavorful and mellow, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

There is a little less than one week to get me your entries for HotM 12: Stews and Casseroles. I’ll happily take them until the 25th of February (even giving you an extra day!) and try to post them in the round-up by Wednesday or Thursday. If you have never participated, you can find the announcement and rules by checking here and here, and we would love to have you join us! If you’ve already been submitting recipes in previous months, we hope you’ll be joining us once again this month (I haven't received very many entries yet...)! You can send your entries to me at mphilli4 AT uoregon DOT edu

Cauliflower and Rice Curry Casserole, serves 6
adapted from Eating Well

2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 sweet onion, 1/2 coarsely chopped and 1/2 thinly sliced
2 fresh Thai chiles, finely chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup raw pecans
1 tsp cumin seeds
4 cardamom pods, crushed slightly
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt, divided
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 cup brown rice
1 bunch (8 ounces) mustard greens, tough ribs removed, leaves finely chopped
8 ounces cauliflower, cut into 1/2-inch florets
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
4 cups water, divided
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

Cook the brown rice in a rice cooker or pan with 3 cups of water and the saffron until the rice is tender and perfumed with the saffron.

Meanwhile, puree tomatoes, chopped onion and chiles to taste in a blender or food processor until smooth. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add raisins and pecans and cook, stirring, until the raisins are plump and the nuts are lightly brown. Transfer the nuts and raisons to a plate with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan.

Add cumin seeds, cardamom pods, and the cinnamon stick to the pan and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then add the sliced onion and cook, stirring, until the onion turns a light brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully pour in the pureed tomato mixture and reduce heat to medium. Stir in garam masala, 3/4 teaspoon salt and turmeric. Simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid evaporates, about 15 minutes. Stir the mustard greens, cauliflower, chickpeas and 1 cup water into the tomato sauce. Cover and remove from the heat.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Spread half the chickpea curry evenly in the prepared baking dish. Spread half the rice mixture on top of the curry. Spoon the remaining chickpea mixture over the rice, then spread the remaining rice on top of that. Scatter the reserved raisins and cashews over the top, then cover tightly with foil. Bake until the cauliflower is tender, about 40 minutes. Remove the cardamom pods (if you can find them!) and cinnamon sticks before serving (you could remove the cardamom earlier if you’re having guests and are worried about them).


A Little Guilt Works Wonders

...especially if your hubby is an Irish/Italian Catholic and you ever so sweetly (but not necessarily discreetly) give him a good-natured little jab on your blog about how much he didn't want to celebrate a commercially-endorsed holiday designed to make lovers feel pressured to show their love and singles remorse about being single.

To be fair, he did say we could do lovey-dovey things on any other, non-commercially endorsed days of the year (ahem, pick your day, sweetheart). So: Pooey on Valentine's Day, but yay for an excuse to make fancy food and eat rich, decadent desserts (I'll take that any day!).

So without further adieu, the recipe:

Homemade Tagliatelle with Truffles and Oozy Cheese Sauce, serves 2
adapted from a recipe by Jamie Oliver

For the pasta:
2 large organic eggs
1 cups pasta flour, plus extra for dusting
Sea salt

For the cheese sauce:
1/2 cup creme fraiche
2.5 ounces sliced fontina
2.5 ounces freshly grated Parmesan
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound broccoli
1 large organic egg yolks
1 small handful fresh marjoram leaves - chopped

Freshly grated Parmesan, for serving
1 large, fresh truffle, shaved
Extra-virgin olive oil

Crack the eggs into a food processor and add the flour. Pulse it until the pasta turns sort of doughy and crumbly. Jamie says you can test the consistency by pinching the dough, and if it's a bit sticky add a little more flour and pulse again - this actually works! Use pasta flour though - we used all-purpose and it ended up a little chewier than it should have been.

Tip the dough mixture onto a floured surface and shape it into a ball with your hands. Give it a little knead until smooth, then divide the dough into 2 equal parts. Start on the thickest setting of your pasta machine and run the first bit of dough through 4 or 5 times, moving the rollers closer together each time until the pasta is silky, smooth and about as thick as a CD. Flour your finished sheet generously, then fold it up and cut across into 1/2-inch strips. Gather all the slices together and toss them through your fingers, with a little flour, to open them up and make your pile of rustic, beautiful tagliatelle. Repeat this procedure with the rest of the dough.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. In a bowl large enough to rest on top of the pan like a double-boiler, put your creme fraiche, fontina or other melting cheese and your Parmesan with a pinch of salt and pepper. Place the bowl over the pan for the cheeses to slowly melt. Meanwhile, trim any dry ends off the broccoli, then finely slice the stalks diagonally and cut the florets into smaller pieces.

At this point the cheese sauce will be melted, so remove the bowl from above the pan and drop the pasta and broccoli into the boiling water. Boil hard for 2 to 3 minutes, until the pasta is just cooked through. Whip up the 2 egg yolks and the marjoram into the sauce. Don't use too much here as marjaram is very piney flavored (that's why you should chop it) and any big pieces are going to overpower everything! Drain the pasta and broccoli, reserving a little of the cooking water, and quickly toss them with the sauce - the heat from the pasta will be enough to cook the eggs through. If the sauce is a little thick, add a few splashes of cooking water to make it silky and loose. Taste and season, if necessary. Serve as quickly as you can, with some extra Parmesan and the shaved truffles sprinkled over the top and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

For another homemade pasta recipe and story, try this.
And, if needed, further coersion techniques can be found here.


Valentine's Day Dreaming

Okay, I admit it. I know I said it was okay if we didn't celebrate Valentine's Day, but honey, I’m as girly as girly can be sometimes. Sure, I’m a rock climber, I rather enjoy a bout of hard, physical labor at times, and I don’t wear trendy clothes or even comb my hair in the morning (Hey! I'm a scientist, after all!). But when Valentine’s Day comes around – be it a mere holiday capitalized upon by the commercial card industry or no – deep down inside, I want the whole shebang. I’m not talking about dozens of $150 roses, hydrogenated milk chocolates that come in shiny heart-shaped red boxes, teddy bears with plastic hearts with “I love you” stamped across them, or drippingly sappy cards expressing your undying love for me and how it’s as "deep as an ocean" or makes you feel "as free as a bird" (although I do like sappy sentiments as much as the next girly girl) – I’m talking about food, baby! Food. Delicious, lovely, rich, sexy food.

No, I don’t want to go and fight off the masses of starry-eyed lovers holding hands across the dinner table at some $300 pre fix menu (although, being a reasonable woman, I would happily accompany you any other night as your date for a $300 pre fix menu and/or gaze at you across a dinner table with starry eyes). Truly, all I want is a dinner at home, cooked together, good music on in the background and a fabulous (though not necessarily expensive) wine in hand. Bonus points if the wine actually compliments the dinner too.

And while we're on the subject, should you feel so inclined, I love flowers too. No, there’s no need to give me roses, or even buy me flowers – a single stem of some flower that you found beautiful or picked yourself (in February? Well, just don’t get arrested then, because I certainly don’t want to spend the night alone because of that!) would be more than adequate. We could put it that old antique Coke bottle and make it the centerpiece of our dining table and it would be positively heartwarming...and heck, we could even gaze at each other across the table and the coke bottle with starry eyes if you wanted to. But even flowers come second to food.

Because as I said before, it’s really all about the food. What kind of food would we make then? Delicious, lovely, rich, sexy food of course. How about soft piles of pillowy homemade pasta? A little flour on our hands and our cheeks is just as sexy, or more so, as some slinky lingerie, don’t you think? Can’t you imagine rolling out the layers of dough together, laughter emerging from the kitchen, and fingers brushing softly as we try and hold the layers up? And the sauce...how about an oozy, creamy, silky sauce? How about fontina, Parmesan, farm-fresh eggs, and the scent of truffles and fresh marjoram kissing the surface of each slender, hand-cut piece? Sound rich enough for you? Sexy enough for you?

Now, wouldn't that be worth the teeny tiny bit of extra effort required? What do you care if it's on February 14th? Even if it is a commercially endorsed holiday? If your girl is happy, you're happy, right? And I know you don't like to pass up delicious food. Well, okay, now you know. I've said my peace, I've admitted my girliness (and you know how tough that is for this girl). Maybe next year then...


Does anyone else find this as funny as I do?

Bunghole Liquors - Salem, Massachusetts

I learned from the winery where I work that a "bunghole" refers to:

"A hole bored into a liquid tight barrel, the hole capped with a large cork-like object called a bung." ~ Wikipedia

We, in fact, have many barrels of wine with bungholes and bungs in the winery - and I draw my chemistry samples from these bungholes nearly every time I am there. So, while my mind tends to wander to other possible definitions, and some child-like snickering is thus inevitable, this is truly a suitable name for a store that sells wine and liquor.

But I still think it's funny.


Under Pressure...

Deadlines. As much as I hate having a deadline, because it means I actually have to get something done (and that, ahem, especially applies to work), I work best under pressure. I pride myself on the fact that if there is something that has got to get done, then I’ll get it done. I wrote my PhD dissertation in six weeks - all two-hundred and eleven pages of it. I will stay up all night finishing a talk or measuring residual sugar samples at the winery. And if I know someone is depending on me getting something done, then by God, I’m going to do it!!

But I’m not so good with food blog deadlines. In fact, I am terrible at keeping up with them unless I know that I absolutely have to do them – like when I am the host... why? I don’t know. Perhaps because I gain so much happiness from the very act of cooking and I am only able to enjoy it a few days a week now, so I like to take my time. Or maybe it is really because I refuse to take pictures when it is dark outside, which pretty much restricts my food blog posts to stuff I can cook on the weekends when the light is at least somewhat acceptable – IF I get to cook on the weekend. And IF I can find time during the workday to write the post and the recipe that goes with it (I must get internet access at home...), which unfortunately for me, has not happened this entire week.

While I don’t have the time to participate in many food events these days, aside from Heart of the Matter, of course (yep=hosting!), I used to do them every once in a while. One of my favorites to read about was Paper Chef...where four ingredients are randomly chosen and bloggers around the world send in their recipes combining those ingredients with others and somehow making them into a delicious amalgam of uniquely crafted yummy-ness. Not to mention, I love seeing what other bloggers have come up with using the same ingredients!

I’ve only participated in Paper Chef once before, and it was a long time ago and almost nearly a disaster, but what I enjoyed most about it was that I got to try ingredients that I hadn’t cooked with and combine them in ways that I hadn’t really thought of before (and maybe would never combine them in that way again...). And I was late for that one too.

This month, Ilva from Lucullian Delights has taken over hosting responsibilities for this fabulous event, and the four ingredients chosen were: rutabagas, potatoes, plum tomatoes and bacon. While I missed the deadline and the round-up, this recipe turned out so well that I had to post it anyway. The first thing I thought of when I saw the “final four” was a potato gratin. I adapted the ingredients a bit by using Canadian bacon instead of just plain old bacon (it's healthier!) and used regular on-the-vine tomatoes because I couldn’t find plum tomatoes at the grocery store. While the tomatoes right now are positively appalling (good Lord – they’re mealy pale pink hockey pucks!) and I won’t use anything but cherry tomatoes for the rest of the winter, this recipe was really fairly healthy and delicious and I will definitely be making it again. You could certainly leave off the “pseudo-gremolata” too – I added it in trying to keep with the Paper Chef theme - but it was kind of refreshing atop the richness of the rest of the dish, and both LB and I decided we liked the combination.

Potato-Rutabaga Gratin with Tomato-Lemon Gremolata, serves 6

1 clove garlic, whole
3 tsp. olive oil, divided
3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, thinly sliced into rounds
1 large rutabaga, thinly sliced into rounds (see how big in the picture?!)
2 slices of canadian bacon, finely chopped (practically minced, but not quite)
salt and pepper
1 tbsp. butter, melted
1/8 tsp of nutmeg
1 ½ cups non-fat milk
1 slice of whole-grain bread

3 tomatoes, chopped (preferably not mealy pale pink hockey pucks)
2 tbsp. parsley, finely chopped
1 meyer lemon (or regular lemon), zested
2 tsp. olive oil
a little salt, and a little sugar if you’ve got mealy pale pink hockey pucks

Preheat the oven to 425F. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub it all along the inside of a casserole dish (I don’t know how big mine was – a medium-sized square that made ~6 side-dish servings!), and reserve it. Add 1 tsp of olive oil, then layer the Yukon golds until they cover the bottom of the dish, slightly overlapping them. Do the same with half of the rutabaga slices. Drizzle the melted butter over the top of the rutabaga and add a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper to the top. Sprinkle on about half of the canadian bacon.

Next, repeat the layers of potatoes and rutabaga. Then salt and pepper the top layer. Heat the milk and nutmeg to boiling over medium-low heat, stirring often. As soon as it boils, pour it over the layers of root veggies. Add the rest of the canadian bacon. Next, pulse the slice of bread in a food processor (I took off the crusts and used a middle slice from a round of seeded whole-wheat sourdough from a local bakery). Once it looks like crumbs, add the remaining 2 tsp. of olive oil and pulse again a few times. Sprinkle the crumbs over the top of the dish. Place it in the oven and cook for 45 to 50 minutes or until the potatoes and rutabaga are tender and the crumbs are lightly browned.

Meanwhile, mix up the gremolata. Add the chopped tomatoes, parsley, meyer lemon zest and juice from half of the lemon, and olive oil together and mix. Add salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Serve the potatoes with the gremolata sprinkled over the top or off to the side so that it can be scooted in as desired with every bite.