I think I might prefer wine and pasta to chocolate. There, I said it. I love wine and pasta! I really love wine and pasta! (Where is Oprah’s couch when you need it?) And much like love, simple is so often better. Dan was in Baltimore last weekend, so I decided to treat myself to a huge bowl of pasta and a movie marathon. And though I often love long-simmering dishes, there’s also something so satisfying about being able to put together a glorious meal in no time at all. And to treat yourself to something you love, to revel in those few moments when you have nothing but possibility in front of you–that is my definition of a true feast. After all, why not celebrate yourself now and again? Pour some wine, never mind if the glass is a little too full to be considered “proper.” Slurp that pasta with devil-may-care abandon. Enjoy every bite, and go back for seconds. It’s your feast after all.

Quick Tapenade: (2-3 servings for main course pasta, 4-6 for pasta as a side)

In the bowl of a food processor, place an assortment of olives–I like to mix several types from the olive bar, probably a cup total. I prefer spicy green olives (sometimes called green olives with chilis) and kalamatas. Pit olives if necessary, and chop large olives in half. Add 1-2 tablespoons of capers, 1/2 lemon (zest and juice), 1-2 garlic cloves (smashed), and a handful of parsley–no need to chop. Add 1-2 T extra virgin olive oil, and pulse until chopped. Optional: Add several anchovies to the food processor. I love this taste, but it’s excellent without them.

Cook 8-12 oz. linguine according to package directions. Transfer the tapenade to a large bowl, and add cooked pasta to the tapenade. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water to loosen the tapenade into a sauce if necessary. Sprinkle with chopped parsley to serve.

This is also great as a spread on a ¬†warm baguette as an appetizer–it will serve about 6 people. Or keep the whole bowl for yourself, add a glass of wine and a great movie, and call it dinner. I would make it a Sandra Bullock night–The Proposal, Two Weeks Notice, While You Were Sleeping, and Miss Congeniality. No matter your feelings about her (I happen to think she’s fabulous), you have to admit her supporting casts are stellar. I know it’s trendy to say so, but Betty White makes The Proposal.


I grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. And I loved it. Ohio is one state that really seemed to get the seasons right–hot summers perfect for running through the sprinklers, cool and beautiful falls with leaves of every color, snowy winters that required hot chocolate and bright sweaters, and springs that launched every backyard garden into high gear. But one of my favorite things about Ohio was, and still is, its signature chili. This is one of the first dishes I learned how to make, and to this day is one of the most comforting meals I know. Southerners can have their fried chicken–I’ll take this any day. What makes it distinct? Oddly, some of the same ingredients that make a Mexican mole sauce: chocolate and cinnamon. Just a hint of each, enough to add warmth and intrigue. It gives the chili a depth and spiciness that you just can’t find in any other recipe. And it’s served over spaghetti! Comfort food never had it so good. I have a perfect record on converts to this chili–it may take three bites or three bowls, but you will come back for more.

Cincinnati Chili

(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2008)

1. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 T vegetable oil and 1 1/2-2 lbs. lean ground beef (I prefer ground sirloin). Cook until browned, breaking up large pieces. Remember, you’re going for something close to the consistency of hot dog chili. Add 1 1/2 medium onions (finely chopped; save the other half and add it at serving, see below), 2 cloves minced garlic, and cook five more minutes or until the onion is tender and translucent.

2. In the meantime, prepare the seasonings. I like to combine all of the spices ahead of time–I’m less likely to forget one when I add them to the pot. (For those that give a range of amounts–2-3 T, for example–add the lower amount first and taste after it simmers for a few minutes–add more as you wish.) In a small bowl, combine 2-3 T brown sugar, 2-3 T chili powder, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. allspice, 1/4 tsp. ground coriander (this adds a nice brightness, but does not make enough difference that you should run out and buy it if you don’t already own it), 1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (unless you use spicy barbecue sauce, then omit the cayenne), 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, 1/2-1 tsp. black pepper (depending on your spice-level preference), and 2-3 T unsweetened cocoa powder (if you prefer, you can add 1 oz. chopped unsweetened chocolate instead).

3. When the onion in tender, add to the pot: 1 cup water, 3 T barbecue sauce (if you use spicy, omit the cayenne pepper), 3-4 tsp. white vinegar, 1 (10.75 oz.) can tomato puree, and the spice mixture. Mix well, bring to a boil, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Taste after 15 minutes or so and adjust spices. Note: If the chili tastes too acidic, add more sugar–brown or white (I usually add a couple of pinches of white). If it tastes flat, add a pinch of salt. If that doesn’t help, add–wait for it–ketchup. I know it sounds crazy, but the vinegar and concentrated tomato flavor adds just the right punch, and you know you have it in your fridge.

4. About 15 minutes before the chili is done, put on a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and add 12-14 oz. of spaghetti. Cook according to package directions. Drain, but do not rinse. Also, warm 1 (15 oz.) can of kidney beans, rinsed and drained. Note: Everyone I know loves the beans, so I cheat and add them to the chili pot when I set the past to cook to heat them through, rather than serving them separately. This saves me the trouble of another dirty dish.

5. To serve: Add 2-3 oz. pasta to each bowl, and add 1 cup of chili. This is two-way. Present diners with the next few options: kidney beans (three-way), chopped onion (four-way), and grated cheddar cheese (five-way).

Serves 6.

I love shapeshifting meals. Meals that can be a substantial breakfast, a luxurious lunch, or a light dinner. Quiche, Frittata, Shrimp and Grits (okay, this one’s not so light)–these can make any meal depending on serving size and accompaniments. And since this one uses The Best Cheese Known to Mankind, well, it was an obvious choice. I know there are more complex cheeses for more refined palates, but if I’m really going to be honest with myself, smoked gouda takes the cake every time. Seriously, there’s a picture of me at my wedding pointing at the smoked gouda on the cheese tray and smiling hysterically. Granted, this probably had something to do with the fact that I realized at that point I could eat the whole tray and it wouldn’t hit my hips until after I’d worn the wedding dress, but the smoked gouda was certainly the initial inspiration for the giddy grin. It reminds me of growing up in Ohio, when my parents would take me to the corner butcher shop on Saturday mornings–Richter’s, I think it was called–and the whole place smelled of the same savory smokiness I associate with gouda. How I loved that smell, and still do. All that to say, this quiche and I had this date from the beginning.

This recipe was simple to put together, as long as you let the store give you a hand. Just buy a crust and some pre-washed spinach and you’ll be ready to eat in an hour. I baked this in my convection toaster oven and it baked in almost half the time the recipe claimed, especially the blind baking step–it only took 15 minutes, and probably could have gone for less. If you have a large enough toaster oven, I highly recommend this method. Granted, I used the regular oven for the side of zucchini (see below) so it didn’t keep the kitchen from getting hot, but the speedy baking was still worth it. Also, the recipe in the magazine claims it makes 10 servings. If you’re serving it for brunch alongside several other offerings, sure, 10 servings might be accurate. But as a dinner entree with a simple side, go for 6-8 servings. The calorie count is still quite low, and there’s nothing worse than feeling unsatisfied after a good meal.

So without further ado…

Smoked Gouda Quiche

(adapted from Cooking Light, August 2010)

For the crust:

Buy a premade crust. I understand, you’re feeling righteous. You want to put only whole foods in your body, and no preservatives. You want to use real ingredients and feel the butter and flour come together under your gentle touch. Got it. If this is the case, here is my suggestion: Buy it. Seriously. Not only is the crust recipe suggested by Cooking Light the worst pie crust I’ve ever made (and I’ve made a lot)–it ripped and shredded and fought me every step of the way and made me want to scrap the whole endeavor and go out for pizza–although the final product did taste good. But you have to make the dough, chill it, roll it out and shape it to the pie pan, then freeze it, blind bake it, cool it, then finally fill it and bake the actual quiche. At least 3 hours total. It’s a good thing Dan was late getting home from his squash game or we would have waited for hours. And while I don’t mind a long process, this is not what you want to be doing for a “quick” evening meal. You can certainly make the crust the day ahead, but really, I have better things to do. So just buy it.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Pierce a storebought 9-inch frozen pie crust with a fork to keep air bubbles from forming and bake for 25 minutes (check after 10-15 if using convection) or until lightly browned. Set aside to cool.

2. To prepare the filling: Heat 1 T extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 cup sliced green onions (green and white parts); saute 5 minutes or until tender.  (Add a pinch of salt to draw out moisture.) Add 3 cups fresh baby spinach (basically three large handfuls); saute 2 minutes. In a bowl, combine 1 cup low-fat milk with 3/4 cup grated smoked gouda, 3/4 tsp. salt, a pinch of grated nutmeg (freshly grated is always best), and 3 large eggs. Mix well with a whisk. Stir in the spinach mixture until well-incorporated. Pour filling into the crust.

3. Bake at 350 F for 35 minutes. If using convection, check after 20-25–the middle should not be wobbly and the top should be firm to the touch. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.

Serving Suggestion (and another recipe): Dan and I ate this for dinner with a side of Roasted Zucchini. Here’s how you make it: Preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Mix 1-2 cloves minced garlic with 1-2 T extra virgin olive oil. Cut several zucchini into wedges (cut off both ends, halve, then slice each half lengthwise several times) and place these wedges skin side down of the baking sheet. Brush with the olive oil mixture, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbes de provence (or any other dried herb mixture you prefer). Bake for about 8-10 minutes; remove when the zucchini begins to brown on top.