Hunkering Down

A hearty (and fast) bolognese, a cheesy skillet orzo bake and a shawarma/souvlaki mashup

January has always been a tough month: it’s gray, it’s cold, and it can be a struggle to get my head back in the work game after the holidays. My birthday offers a small glimmer of light, but afterward, it just feels like one big slog until spring. And with the pandemic still raging, it’s a lonely, grim January times ten.

Cooking, per usual, has been the one light at the end of what’s been one long-a** tunnel.

Bored but too cold to go outside? Baking a pan of my favorite soft, buttery dinner rolls does the trick. Bored but already did some kind of adventurous activity and need to whittle away at something for the next four hours? Good thing dinner needs to be made. It’s probably unhealthy, but hey, whiling away my time cooking doesn’t seem so bad. I know John won’t complain.

And while I’m always a fan of the new, below you’ll find a few recipes that have featured heavily in my rotation because they’re darn good and really comforting: A cheesy skillet orzo bake with feta and broccoli, a soothing (and fast) fennel bolognese ladled on top of rigatoni, a warm pocket of naan slathered with hummus and stuffed with zesty chicken thighs marinated in a souvlaki-shawarma mashup.

I hope they provide some comfort (and perhaps a few moans of delight) for you as we struggle bus onward towards brighter days. In the meantime, hunker down and eat well.

WHAT I’M EATING

Baked Orzo with Feta, Tomatoes, and Broccoli

Last summer, I became obsessed with feta cheese. This was big for me because as a child I found it way too salty and avoided it along with any form of olive. Maybe I have a salt deficiency now or maybe my taste buds have dulled a bit, but feta went from “too salty” to “delicious.” Paired with its longtime companion watermelon, and it’s truly a delight. But though I went through A LOT of feta this summer, it was almost always fresh out of the container. I’d never really thought to cook it until seeing a popular recipe from the New York Times that suggested doing just that. The recipe, Sheet Pan Baked Feta With Broccolini, Tomatoes, and Lemon, claimed that feta, when baked, “gains an almost creamy texture, similar to goat cheese but with feta’s characteristic tang.” Well, that sounded delicious. After demolishing a plate of said gooey baked feta and roasted veg served over buttered orzo, I thought, why not combine everything together in one cheesy, tomatoey bake? The results were a delight, with that creamy, saline feta flavor in each bite. This is lovely served on a cold, dreary day.

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp butter

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil 

  • 1 small onion, chopped

  • 1 head broccoli, cut into bite-sized pieces

  • ½ pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half 

  • 1 clove garlic, minced or grated

  • 1 ¾ cup orzo 

  • 1 tsp cumin 

  • 2 tsp salt

  • 1 tsp pepper

  • ½ cup crushed tomatoes

  • 1 ½ cups chicken stock

  • ½ cup white wine 

  • 1 cup water

  • ½ cup heavy cream

  • 1 tsp lemon zest

  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice

  • 1 tbsp fresh oregano, finely chopped

  • 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled 

  • 1 cup parmesan, grated, divided into ½ cup and ½ cup 

  • ½ cup finely shredded low-moisture mozzarella

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425 with rack in upper third of oven. 

  2. Heat olive oil and butter in a cast-iron pan or other oven-safe pan over medium heat. (Alternatively, you can cook the filling in a heavy-bottomed pot like a Dutch oven and then scrape it into a buttered baking dish before cooking in the oven.) 

  3. Add onions and broccoli and sauté until onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, orzo, cherry tomatoes, cumin, salt and pepper. Stir, and cook for about 3 minutes, until cherry tomatoes start to get jammy.

  4. Add crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, white wine and water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Cook for about 8 minutes, or until orzo is al dente (Take care not to overcook, since you will be cooking the mixture further in the oven.) 

  5. Remove pan from heat and stir in heavy cream, lemon zest, lemon juice, oregano, feta cheese, and ½ cup of parmesan. Scatter the remaining parmesan and the mozzarella on top and place in the oven. 

  6. Bake for 15 minutes, then broil for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Easy Bolognese With Fennel

Every bolognese recipe I’ve seen is pitched as an all-day affair: “Cook at a low simmer for 6 hours,” many advise. I don’t have the patience for this and, I respectfully ask, do you really need to simmer ground pork for that long? Enter my quick and dirty (and delicious) cheat’s bolognese. The gelatin used is a la Serious Eats and gives the sauce a velvety texture in addition to thickening it a bit. The fennel and vermouth add a mild hit of anise which goes nicely with the pork, but if you’re not a fan of anise, feel free to skip. And if you’re working towards a less meat-heavy diet, definitely sub in your fake meat of choice!

Ingredients

  • 1 packet gelatin

  • 1.5 cup pork or chicken stock

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil

  • 1 Tbsp butter

  • 1 carrot, finely chopped

  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped

  • ½ small bulb fennel, finely chopped (optional)

  • 1 small onion, finely chopped

  • 1 tsp salt

  • ½ tsp pepper

  • Pinch red pepper flakes

  • 1.5 pounds ground pork

  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste

  • ¼ cup crushed tomatoes

  • 1/4 cup red wine

  • 1/4 cup vermouth

  • Pinch nutmeg

  • 2 bay leaves

  • Chunk parmesan rind (optional)

  • Salt, to taste

  • ¼ cup heavy cream

  • 4 leaves sage, finely chopped

Instructions

  1. Sprinkle contents of gelatin packet on pork or chicken stock. Set aside.

  2. Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy bottom pot over medium heat. Add carrot, celery, fennel, onion, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until softened, about 8 minutes.

  3. Add the ground pork, breaking up with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes.

  4. Stir in tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. Add wine and bring to a light boil for 4 minutes.

  5. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add the pork or chicken stock, nutmeg, bay leaves and parmesan rind, if using. Cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until bolognese is thick. Stir in cream and sage and cook for another 2 minutes

  6. Serve with rigatoni, tagliatelle, or whatever your favorite pasta shape is! Just make sure to grate more parmesan before serving and serve with a glass of red wine.

Souvlaki/Shawarma Chicken Wraps

Though chicken souvlaki and chicken shawarma may have different origins and slightly disparate ingredients, they both feature garlicky, lemony marinades perked up with various herbs and spices. I love them both, and since they share some common ground, I decided a souvlaki/shawarma mashup was in order. After marinating chicken thighs in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, fresh oregano, cumin, paprika, and red pepper flakes, I roasted them at high heat in the oven along with some pickled red onions tossed in the marinade. They emerged sticky, tangy, and with a slight char. Folded up in warm piece of naan (slightly unorthodox but nonetheless delicious), slathered with hummus and topped with crunchy cucumbers, a hefty splash of hot sauce and yogurt, and a few more pickled onions, it was truly one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup lemon juice

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 Tbsp fresh minced fresh oregano, or ½ Tbsp dried

  • ½ cup olive oil

  • 2 tsp cumin

  • 2 tsp paprika

  • Pinch red pepper flakes

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • ½ tsp black pepper

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, fat trimmed

  • ¼ cup pickled red onions, plus more for serving

  • Hummus

  • Hothouse cucumbers, sliced into rounds or strips

  • Flatbread of choice

  • Hot sauce

  • Sour cream or yogurt

Instructions

  1. Whisk together all ingredients in a bowl except for pickled onions. Add chicken, stirring to coat, and marinade chicken in mixture in fridge for at least 30 minutes.

  2. Preheat oven to 425. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper and place chicken on pan. Toss red onions in remaining marinade mixture and reserve.

  3. Cook chicken for 20 minutes, then add the pickled onions and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove from oven, cover with foil, and let rest for 5 minutes.

  4. To assemble wraps, spread hummus on lavash or naan (or other flatbread), then dot with sliced cuke rounds or strips, and fresh pickled onions. Slice chicken into bite-size pieces, and place on top, making sure to include some of the roasted pickled onions. Drizzle with yogurt or sour cream and a few lashings of hot sauce.

WHAT I’M DRINKING

Mostly wine, and mostly Beaujolais. Beaujolais is a quaffable and affordable red made from Gamay grapes that hit trendy wine bar shelves a few years back, and according to PUNCH, is poised to get more expensive (so get in on it before it hits top-shelf price levels!). It was also one of the first wines I tried upon entering the world of fancy (but caj, obvs) wine bars when I worked in Boston. I was so out of my league.

Want to go to a wine bar (someday), know what you’re doing and simultaneously order the cheapest wine offered? Beaujolais is your friend. Let’s get you acquainted.

Where it’s from: An eponymous vertical strip of a region south of Burgundy on the eastern side of France. Granite is the foundation to quaint, lolling grass hills and the small towns tucked between them. Vineyards crisscross the landscape.

Flavor profile: It’s a zippy red that is lovely at room temp but even more refreshing lightly chilled and served in one of those vintage cut-glass crystal goblets I mentioned a few newsletters back. Flavorwise, think tart raspberry, juicy cherry, crushed and macerated strawberries, a whiff of violet and a light hit of earthiness (okay, dirt really) in some funkier offerings.

What to serve it with: Beaujolais provides a nice brightness and acidity that complements many a dish, whether it’s a roll of sushi or a bowl of beef stew. That said, it really sings when poured alongside some sort of cheese and meat board, or when paired with cold, briny oysters dotted with mignonette.

WHAT I’M READING

One of my favorite cookbooks, and one that I’ve revisited recently, is Fresh India by Meera Sodha. I used to think of “Indian food” in broad strokes, an amalgamation of tikka masala, korma, and naan. But if you’re looking for more than this distilled version of what is a very diverse cuisine, look no further than Fresh India. Sodha not only provides scrumptious recipes (all of which are vegetarian), she also demonstrates a variety of cooking techniques, like toasting spices in oil as an aromatic flavor bomb, or how to take humble ingredients like potatoes and cabbage and turn them into stars with a simple can of coconut milk. Two of my favorite recipes are the pumpkin, black-eyed pea and coconut curry, and the fennel and apple chaat with caramelized almonds (this has been a hit with guests on more than one occasion).

Another book I’m excited to dive into is an old family tome called Lithuanian Cookery. It’s not fancy; there are no sleek, curated photos. But after writing an article for Bon Appetit that mentioned my Lithuanian heritage, I was inundated with requests to develop some recipes based on this oft-forgotten cuisine. Some of the writing in the book speaks to when it was written, with suggestions on what to serve your husband and rather esoteric recipe instructions. But there are classics that I’ve put on my list to develop for the modern palate: stuffed cabbage, sour cream bars, kuldunai (Lithuanian meat pierogi), fresh cheese desserts. Keep an eye out!