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HaVL’s shrimpcake noodles in pork broth.

A drizzly, cool Monday morning. After traveling for the past three weeks, Jeff was home, briefly, before heading on the road again. And I, having been laid off about 8 weeks ago, was starting to feel itchy and unsettled. Anxiety and self-doubt were creeping in, especially with my recent solitude.

Jeff took the day off — a day of rest and laundry before leaving again the next morning. I suggested checking a to-do off my unemployment bucket list: Have a late breakfast/early lunch at HaVL on SE 82nd.

HaVL made my to-do list after the noodles repeatedly appeared in the Instagram feed of a trusted foodie-friend. When I quizzed her about the must-try dish she said: “They only have 2 soups daily and usually sell out by 11 or noon. Get there early and go every day of the week until you’ve tried all 14! All of them are unbelievable. Secret tip: you can call early and reserve soup for later if you can’t make it early. They’ll just take your name and save them for you.” (Note: They’re closed on Tuesdays, so there are only 12 soups. “Only.”)

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Crabflake noodles with straw mushrooms and quail eggs.

We arrived around 11am and the small space still had a few tables available. I expect it was an anomaly given that all the tables were full only shortly after we arrived. The vibrant green walls brightened the small space, even on a dark day, and the staff quietly hustled around taking orders and delivering wrapped bánh mì sandwiches, steaming bowls and smaller plates of add-ons: sprouts, mint, cilantro, lime.

On Monday, the soups were crabflake and shrimpcake. We got one of each, naturally. Shrimpcake soup had a lighter, but deeply flavored, pork broth and skinnier rice noodles. The crabflake soup had a velvety, thickened pork broth and fat, slippery rice noodles.

My friend was right — both were unbelievable. A couple extra spoonfuls of fiery chiles, and our bellies were warmed to greet the rest of the week. “Go to HaVL” was crossed off my unemployment bucket list, only to be replaced with, “Go again. Soon.”

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LBB bacon and cheddar cheeseburger with fries.

LBB bacon and cheddar cheeseburger with fries.

Well, this could be a problem.

Just months after Bunk Bar opened up next to Salt and Straw, Little Big Burger moved into the space previously inhabited by Flywheel skate shop on Alberta and NE 21st. Painted ketchup red with the brief menu and appealing prices printed in white lettering on the exterior, LBB is hard to miss, and harder to resist.

Located 500-ish steps from our front door (not nearly enough to cancel out any inevitable calories)  we headed over on a recent Friday night to welcome the new burger-focused inhabitants to the neighborhood. We ordered at the counter and had a seat at the bar to watch the staff hustle to fill dozens of orders with systematic efficiency.

LBB pepper jack cheeseburger.

LBB pepper jack cheeseburger.

"This ain't made in Salt Lake City."

“This ain’t made in Salt Lake City.”

Quarter-pound, burgers –not quite skinny patty, but not thick either — are cooked on the flat-top to a caramelized crust and ever-so-slightly pink interior. The perfect proportion to the toasted brioche bun on which they’re served, burgers come with what I consider essential burger toppings: pickle, onion, shredded lettuce, and your choice of cheddar, Swiss, chevre, pepper jack or blue cheese, should you swing that way. On the side, you’ve got one heavenly choice: truffle fries. Still sizzling from the fryer, they’re tossed in salt and truffle oil, pretty much transforming into crack. And though the Camden fry sauce bottle clearly and defiantly states “This ain’t made in Salt Lake City,” it does the hometown stuff proud.

Greedily thinking one burger each may not be enough — LBBs are deceivingly petite — we ordered three, plus two orders of fries, all of which turned out to be way more than we needed. Poof. It vanished nonetheless.

See what I mean by “problem?”

So, LBB, welcome to the neighborhood. We are glad you’re here and look forward to indulging in more of your skinny-patty, fry-sauce-laden goodness.

 

 

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Thirty years ago, or even 20, if asked what I wanted to eat on my birthday, I would have surprised no one with my answer: “Noodles.” Little has changed. However, if you had told me that for my 45th, my wish for the perfect birthday dinner would also have included corn dogs in a sultry cocktail lounge setting, I would have suggested you have your noodle checked.

But living in Portland does unexpected things to a food lover’s perspective and cravings, and on a soggy end-of-March Friday, I could not wait to get over to NE Killingsworth and 30th for my fix.

As we did the first time we visited Expatriate, J and I took a seat at the window facing Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast, the site of other memorable feasts.

Expatriate is a collaboration between Pomeroy and husband Kyle Linden Webster, lauded former bartender at St. Jack. (Also the site of other memorable meals. Sensing a trend here?)

On paper, this lounge, with its Asian-inflected bar-snack menu, already has a pedigree, but Webster and Pomeroy’s devotion to balanced flavors and hospitality makes it special. Indeed, Webster has a gift for making people feel welcome. When he stops by to check on patrons, it’s not a typical obligatory manager drive-by. Instead, he looks you in the eye and, despite being clearly busy, he lingers to chat. I’ve seen him run out to the sidewalk to talk with and offer suggestions to people who had come inside but couldn’t find a seat.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

We started with cocktails, the No. 8 for me and the Precariat for J, sipping while we perused the menu, trying to narrow it down to an order that would not overwhelm our intimate corner of the window counter. On this visit, we skipped the deliciously simple onion and butter sandwich, an ode to James Beard on crustless white bread. Last time we were here, a fortuitous kitchen mixup brought us two orders, so we felt OK passing it over this time.

Not pass-up-able, however, were the aforementioned corn dogs, like the corn dogs of your childhood, stick and all, but made so much better with delicately sweet Chinese sausage in place of the standard hot dog. They are served with a potent sinus-cleansing mustard.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Following that was dungeness crab Rangoon: crispy wontons filled with local crab meat and cream cheese. New to us this time around was the most craveable salad: caramelized brussels sprouts, butternut squash cubes, Napa cabbage and ground lamb, every bite a delicious crunchy balance of sweet, salty, sour and savory. And from the “Hungrier” part of the menu, we ordered the tempura cod sandwich and, of course, the noodles: a generous bowl of coconut-scented broth and noodles with fried duck confit, topped with a beautifully soft-boiled egg.

By the time we had finished, the crowd had filled in behind us, and it was time to relinquish our coveted seats to some other lucky couple. We walked home feeling lucky to have so many delicious options in our neighborhood and grateful for another year.

 

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

“Daddy, I want a chateau!”

Zandra said aloud, in jest, what the rest of us were thinking as we filed, dumbstruck, through the beautiful Dalmeran castle. (Why not speak up if your father is in earshot? Bob responded with a smile and an arched eyebrow.) Had we stepped into an issue of Architectural Digest? Million-dollar mosaics and paintings by masters — originals! — decorated rooms that exuded elegance but also comfort, a tricky balance. The inclination was to kick off the shoes and drop onto a lavishly pillowed sofa for a nap. But no, we were visitors here, and there were wines to be tasted. So we soldiered on.

Jeff's new best friend.

Jeff’s new best friend.

Earlier that morning, Kelly’s million-dollar connections had secured a private tour of a well-respected winery nearby, Domaine de Trévallon. We briefly met the winemaker, Monsieur Dürrbach, before his daughter gave us a tour of the property and the barrel cave. A jolly yellow lab had joined us, eager to be friends, propping himself heavily against each of us in turn, hoping for a scratch on the ears. We ended with a sampling of wine in the early stages of fermentation, drawn from the huge vats where that process takes place.

We then drove to the beautiful estate Dalmeran where we were treated to the quick chateau tour. We were there for our second degustation of the day, this one to be conducted by Kelly. The tasting room, located in a side building, was a warm den carved out of stone, with arched ceilings, a long stone bench along one wall with cushions for seating, and a central tasting table. Kelly poured and held forth in his spirited, passionate way on the unique qualities of the area’s wines — Châteauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, wines farmed in soil so rocky it looks unsuitable to grow anything, let alone the productive vines it somehow nourishes.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

James, the groundskeeper.

James, the mower.

After the tasting, we strolled through the Dalmeran estate’s garden, admiring the sprawling grounds and perfectly manicured lawn. We pitied whoever was responsible for mowing until the groundskeeper introduced us to him. His name, coincidentally, was James — a squat little four-wheel contraption parked under a shrub. The groundskeeper explained that James mowed the lawn on a schedule, without human interference or instruction, venturing out every couple of days to glide over the expansive green until no blade was left unshorn. Then he would return to his roost under the shrub and connect himself to the charger until duty called again. I imagined what it must be like to own this beautiful place, sitting on the veranda, drinking coffee, looking up over the newspaper to see James dutifully patrolling the premises, back and forth, section by section. Good man, James. A fine servant indeed.

Private chef #1 a La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

Our chateau for three nights.

Our château for three nights.

The Setup: Departing from L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, we drove north toward our destination for the next few nights: La Verrière. We left paved roads near Crestet after dusk and headed deep into what, in the darkness, seemed like wilderness. After a good 20 minutes of bumping along the rugged dirt road, we rounded a corner and saw the lights. Nestled in the hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux, La Verriere is a winery and estate with quarters that can be rented — and we had the place all to ourselves. Seeing the welcoming glow from within the expansive villa, we could only chuckle at our increasingly opulent accommodations. “Eh,” we joked, “this’ll do.”

The sitting room at La Verriere.

The sitting room at La Verriere.

Home dining at its finest.

Home dining at its finest.

A former priory dating to the 9th century, the estate has been beautifully renovated with attention paid to its history and environment. The guest rooms, each with a theme reflective of the area, have beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards, rolling hills and the looming mountain. (Jeff and I stayed in Lavandes — the lavender room). But the living and dining rooms with their arched white stone ceilings and thick stone walls inspired awe. Even more awe-inspiring: Chef Guilhem Sevin from Avignon restaurant Christian Etienne was preparing dinner for us when we arrived.

The Feast: After we settled into our various wings of the estate, oohing and ahhing over each other’s rooms, we gathered in the sitting room, sinking into comfortable chairs and couches. Kelly opened a bottle of wine and the staff served nibbles from the chef: a spoonful of fresh clam in a light mignonette; a luscious little cup of artichoke puree; tender sweetbreads. After the aperitifs, we assembled at the grand table, each setting furnished with two wine glasses that portended the goodness to come.

First course: fish.

First course: fish.

First course: flaky red mullet alongside a tender artichoke heart stuffed with mushrooms, served with a dark bouillabaisse sauce reduced to a thick, deeply rich gravy. Sopping with bread was the natural thing to do, though no one would have questioned motives or etiquette had someone licked his or her plate clean.

Main course: partridge.

Main course: partridge.

The main course brought partridge topped with Spanish jambon Bellota pata negra, the same kind that we encountered our first day, alongside a mushroom terrine and a crouton cradling a little slather of foie gras and a slice of mushroom.

A small bit of cheese served with dandelion greens followed, and finally, for dessert, a nest of angel-hair pasta fried crisp and topped with basil cream and stewed quince. Light, crunchy, bright, green and delicious. Two different glasses of wine per  course allowed us to compare flavors and food pairings.

Most Memorable: Let’s recap: A private chef in our private 9th century abbey-turned-winery. Two wines with each course. The biggest exertion of the evening was to walk upstairs to our separate wings for a restful sleep, breathing in the crisp Provençal air. God, we’re so lucky.

Truffle Hunting in the Var – Richeranches

Fresh black truffle.

Fresh black truffle.

The Setup: A beautifully sunny morning greeted us as we headed out for a pre-lunch truffle hunt. Only slightly reluctant to leave our estate for the day, we piled into our vehicles: James, Zandra, Brett, Amy and Aiden in the Jumpy with Kelly; Jeff, Bob, Dorothy and I with Jack. We started down the hill toward our first appointment, chatting with Jack about how much we’d loved the trip. Having had a large hand in the itinerary, he was pleased that we were enjoying ourselves. When he arranges trips, he said, he strives to orchestrate that “wow” moment, the one a client will remember forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as a perfectly timed sunset dinner; sometimes clients require a grander experience to achieve the moment — he called them “tourgasms.”  To which we responded we’d had multiple.

We drove to the town of Richerenches to meet truffle producer Erich Devontue. He and son Franck offered us coffee in the dining room of their establishment, with its open sunken kitchen and grand stone fireplace. We learned the farmhouse had been converted to an inn and Franck, who had attended cooking school, was in charge of the kitchen.

Ready for the hunt.

Ready for the hunt.

One of many finds.

One of many finds.

We chatted for a few minutes and then left Franck to his cooking. Erich led us to his shop for an abbreviated truffle lesson, similar to the one we received in Périgord. We then crossed the road in the company of Erich’s spirited hound and ventured deep into rocky groves of green and white oak. The dog, a stout wiry-haired mongrel, did all the work. We dutifully followed, careful not to interfere. As soon as the dog pawed the ground, Erich would call him off, dig up the truffle with a pick and place it in his canvas bag. The outing netted a good number of black beauties and after 90 minutes we headed back to the house where Franck was preparing a grand, truffle-laced lunch.

Truffles and chickpeas.

Truffles and chickpeas.

The Feast: We warmed ourselves on the sunny patio and Kelly opened a bottle of crisp Chardonnay to accompany the small bites: a cup of creamy pumpkin soup topped with shaved black truffle; warm chickpeas drizzled with truffle oil and infused with flecks of truffle; and truffled oeufs brouilles, this version a bit more scrambled than Carole’s smooth rendition.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Then we headed indoors and sat around the large square table next to the crackling hearth, where we were served beautiful butter-seared scallops over spinach and dandelion greens in a light vinaigrette, topped with shaved truffle. The main course was comfort food defined: fork-tender pork cheek served with a veal stock reduction and, of course, more shaved truffle. On the side, a terra cotta dish of creamy, cheesy gnocchi atop red onion jam. One bite and Jeff declared that he’d just had a porkgasm. Flushed and dizzy from the earthy flavors, we knew exactly what he meant.

A cheese course followed: warm Camembert with truffles, and a soft truffled Corsican sheep’s cheese on a crouton. Finally, dessert: truffle infused creme brulee with — what else? — shaved truffle on top.

Most Memorable: Decadent. Rich. Delicious. Gracious hosts. A wine and truffle education in one. A tourgasm and a porkgasm, all in one day. This was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.

Private chef #2 at La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

The Setup: Our late, leisurely and rather large lunch at the Devontue farm ended around 4 pm, and as we drove home we realized that dinner was not far away. When we arrived at La Verrière, we had a short time to digest before our second personal chef of the trip arrived to cook us a truffle-themed meal.

Still absolutely stuffed, we mentally prepared ourselves. Day 12 of the gavage was coming to a close, and we were beginning to feel the effects.

Working for our supper.

Working for our supper.

This night was different, however, because chef Pascal Ginoux of nearby Les Bories would involve us in the cooking. While it was a fantastic concept, the idea of preparing of a gourmet truffle meal under the tutelage of a Michelin-star chef, I couldn’t help but feel the cruel beauty of it all. Already bursting with truffles from an earlier feeding, now we were helping prepare the ingredients for our next. Sort of like building your own gallows.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Jeff, Dorothy, Amy and Brett peeled root vegetables. James dismantled a pineapple. Zandra and I were in charge of dredging and breading foie gras croquettes that were to be fried for our first course. But how could there be so many? Were we expected to eat them all? We briefly contemplated staging a croquette “accident.”  A nudge of the tray over the edge of the counter — “oops!” Perfectly innocent. But after careful consideration we decided that standing and moving our hands from flour to egg to breadcrumbs was the only exercise we would have that evening. We told ourselves to suck it up.

Our work done, we retreated to the media room for a final rest before the re-gorging began, coaching ourselves with words of encouragement: We can do this. Sit up straight and take little bites. We’ll be fine.

Three wines per course was now the standard.

Two wines per course was now the standard.

Veal and root vegetables.

Veal and root vegetables.

The Feast: As we tucked into the meal, the delicious flavors and spot-on wine pairings made it all go easier. The first course, our breaded foie gras croquettes, appeared: fat little fingers deep fried to a golden brown, served with celery puree and a truffle olive-oil foam. Gorgeous and light-tasting despite the decadent ingredients. The second course featured tender veal served with roasted vegetables, the very ones so lovingly prepped by our crew. Chef Ginoux  supplied extra veal reduction to augment the rich gravy already on the plate. My bloated belly forgotten, I poured extra sauce and grabbed a piece of bread for sopping. Finally, dessert: a delicate meringue cylinder with deeply caramelized pineapple and a passionfruit puree. Bright, sweet and light. After dinner, the chef sat at the table with us, drank wine and chatted. Kelly translated. We snapped a few photos with our new friend before trudging up to bed for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Most Memorable: An incredible meal prepared by a very talented chef. But the whispered words between Zandra and me still echo in my head: “Are all of these croquettes for us? They can’t be — there are so many!”

Minizo ramen

Happiness on a stick.

Minizo. Thanks for meeting me tonight. I know I shouldn’t … we shouldn’t. But the attraction is too great. It shouldn’t feel right — hot soup and steaming dumplings on a sun-baked August evening — but when that twilight breeze brushes my legs, well I can’t explain it. It just is right. It can’t be helped.

Stumpings

Tri-colored beauties.

You know I find you irresistible: your fresh handmade noodles boiled to order; the pinch of sprouts in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the hot bath of broth; that soft-boiled egg, melting into the soup; the thinly sliced pork. Yes, I noticed it all. How could I not? All this cool confidence and yet you’re playful enough to display the plastic Godzilla on the counter. I’m feeling faint. Is it getting hotter? Or is it just me?

Stumplings, right next door, does not make this affair any easier. If I’m waiting, waiting for handmade noodles cooked to order, how can I resist handmade steamed dumplings? Yes, I am weak, but I am not ashamed. I am in love. It can’t be helped.

Eleni’s in Sellwood

August 18, 2012

Eleni's grilled calamari

Eleni’s grilled calamari. It’s a crime not to dip bread in that sauce.

One hundred degrees in Portland. The pets are wilting. The plants are panting. It’s too hot to breathe.

Our house lacks AC, so the only respite involves getting out, and on blistering nights like last Thursday, nothing beckons more than fresh, bright flavors and simple ingredients. In our minds, that means one place, so off to Eleni’s in Sellwood we went.

James and Zandra introduced us to Eleni’s long before we moved here, and we’ve been around the classic Greek menu a few times now, sampling appetizers, salads, pastas and mains. Decision-making impaired by the heat, we took the one-of-everything approach and assembled a feast of shared appetizers and a few larger plates mixed in: rice-filled dolmathes; giant lima beans sauteed with red peppers and onion; a generous triangle of spanakopita; moussaka thick with bechamel; flaky pan-seared halibut; a lamb gyro; plump tiger prawns sauteed with a zesty sherry sauce; and a bright Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, olives and feta in a light balsamic dressing.

But there’s one dish that brings us back repeatedly: marinated, grilled calamari finished with lemon juice and fruity olive oil. We always get two orders — truthfully, we could get four or five and not have enough. So simple, fresh and cooked to perfection, it transports you to a taverna on a Greek hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.

To put it plainly, we love Eleni’s, and the grilled calamari has no match in town. That we don’t hear much buzz about Eleni’s strikes us as odd because the food is consistently strong and the service is warm and prompt. But for now, it is our under-the-radar gem and the ideal destination no matter the temperature outside.

Tomato sandwich

J + R + T = Love.

Some couples have their song. (“This is our song! We danced to it at our wedding.”)

Some couples have a place. (“We are going back to Cabo in the spring. It’s where we met!!”)

Jeff and I, we have a sandwich.

Ok, to be fair, it’s a sandwich and a side. So it’s really a meal. Our meal is the tomato sandwich and “dry” ramen.

Of course I’d had BLTs before, and everyone knows how I feel about ramen, but this combination is special. Early in our relationship, Jeff introduced me to this glorious partnership, which he and his brother had perfected during their college years. The sandwich requires juicy, sweet, still-warm-from-the-sun, vine-ripened tomatoes, which are so plentiful in Salt Lake. It’s not worth making if you don’t have this component (and I’ve griped about the lack of decent tomatoes since leaving Utah).

The focus on the tomato makes this sandwich different from a BLT, where bacon steals the show. This is a T sandwich all the way, and the other ingredients are supporting cast: Two pieces of toasted wheat bread, one topped with a leaf or two of lettuce (I like either iceberg or butter lettuce). The other piece of bread has a slather of mayo and Dijon mustard. Call in the tomato. It should be plump, sweet and juicy, not like the anemic grainy flavorless imposters you find in the supermarket. At home we grew Early Girls and Beefsteak, and both made lovely sandwiches. Lay two, three or four thick slices on the lettuce. Grind a little black pepper over the tomato and put a couple not-too-thick slices of cheddar on top. The other piece of bread sits on top of the cheese. (You’ll notice the cheese and the lettuce insulate the bread from all the juices from the tomato. Ingenious, I know.)

While one of us assembled sandwiches, the other started a little pot of water on the stove for the ramen, which is drained and dressed with a dash of rice wine vinegar, a drizzle of soy sauce, several good shakes of Tabasco, half the flavor packet and five or six grinds of pepper.

Sandwich and ramen

Beautiful.

Sandwich on the plate. Ramen on the plate. Nothing could be more beautiful.

During the summer in Salt Lake when the tomatoes were bountiful, Jeff and I would eat tomato sandwiches for lunch at least a couple times a week. We even considered serving it at our wedding, only half-jokingly, before we decided that Log Haven likely would not tolerate Top Ramen in their kitchen.

Every once is a great while we come across the rare tomato that is sandwich-worthy, like the ones Jeff found last week. We pounced and went through the delicious summer ritual of so many years ago. Hunched over our plates, tomato juice dripping down our chins, we thanked our lucky stars that we don’t have a song or a place. We have a sandwich.

Cubano

Hello my friend, hello.

This sounds overly dramatic, but I mean it when I say a good sandwich can elevate my day. A bad one can ruin it. It’s a simple matter of good ingredients in the right proportion, and when I find a beautiful sandwich, it brings joy.

On a recent hot Saturday afternoon, we — Julie, J and I — set out on a walk that would lead us to Bunk Bar on SE Water Street. Bunk has earned a reputation of being the Mecca of Portland’s sandwich seekers, and that reputation has catapulted into the national spotlight through coverage on the Food Network and the Travel Channel. Bunk Bar, an outpost of the original, serves the same sandwiches but is open later, has a full bar and a music stage. Though we arrived in the afternoon, Bunk Bar still had a lively crowd and we barely avoided a mini rush that lined up after us. I grabbed a booth by the  window, while Julie and J placed our order: three pork belly Cubano sandwiches and mole tots.

A well-made sandwich strikes a balance among all its ingredients, and Bunk’s pork belly Cubano does that with casual precision. The ciabatta bread has the perfect chewy-to-crunchy ratio, enough to envelop the sandwich and add flavor and texture, but not overpower what’s inside. And what’s inside can best be classified as “oh my goodness”: salty slab bacon, melted Swiss cheese, tart pickle, a good slather of mustard and silky pork belly that dissolves on the tongue. Each bite deliciously proportionate. The tots, bathed in rich dark mole sauce, were a tasty accompaniment, but entirely unnecessary. The sandwich was more than enough on this trip.

Bunk gets it right. We knew that going in, but we were happy to have tried it ourselves, finally, and we can’t wait to go back. Sandwich joy. Is there anything better?

Sunday Dinner: Cacio e Pepe

February 5, 2012

Cacio e pepe finished

Fresh pasta, cheese and fresh ground pepper.

I’ve been sitting with this post for weeks now, unable to find words to adequately describe this beautiful simplicity of this dish. While I have many go-to recipes, my favorite dishes are often those with few ingredients that commingle perfectly. Cacio e pepe is one of those dishes. Fresh pasta, butter and olive oil, generous amounts of black pepper and salty Italian cheeses. Smug in my restraint, I thought: “This will be a beautifully minimalist post that shall represent the serene minimalist nature of the recipe.” How very zen.

But then I began to daydream about how this recipe may have come about. I imagined a slight Roman woman with knotted hands, children grown and in their own homes. She’s attending to the day’s housework in summer’s heat, sweeping, scrubbing, hanging laundry on the balcony to dry in the sun; and she’s cooking the night’s meal in a sweltering kitchen. I imagined that, after a long day of his own work, the tired husband returns home and sits down to his repast. They exchange tired looks and scant words about the day’s high points when he makes the fatal error:

“This needs more pepper.” “It doesn’t need more pepper.” “It does.” “It’s fine the way it is.” “I’d prefer it with more. Mamma makes it with more pep … ”

She snatches up the plate, whisking it back to the kitchen where she begrudgingly grinds a sneeze-inducing amount of pepper into the pasta, muttering: “Your mother (grind, grind, grind)… I’ll show your mother. You want (grind) more (grind) pepper (grind, grind, grind) I’ll give you  more (grind, grind, grind) blasted (grind, grind) pepper.”

And thus the spicy, salty, buttery combination was born, a happy accident born out of the weariness of a long day. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

Cacio e Pepe (Adapted from Bon Appétit)

1 pound fresh egg pasta (like spaghetti)

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper, or more to taste (ahem)

1 cup grated Grana Padano

1/2 cup Pecorino

Bring four quarts of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta for one to two minutes — it should be slightly underdone. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.

In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter along with the olive oil. Add the pepper, swirling to incorporate. Add 2/3 cup reserved pasta water and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and the remaining butter; using tongs coat the pasta with butter and pepper. Reduce heat and add the Grana Padano, mixing with the pasta until melted. Remove from heat and add the Pecorino, working the cheese into the pasta until it melts and the pasta is evenly coated, and al dente, adding more pasta water if it seems dry.

Serve with a medium-bodied Italian red like Langhe Nebbiolo, and toast your beloved and your good fortune at having discovered this dish. And, for the love of god, please don’t bring Mamma into it.

Warm and comforting meatloaf and spaghetti squash gratin.

I can’t say meatloaf was my favorite food growing up. By my logic, if you were going through the trouble of hand-shaping ground beef, why not make meatballs (with spaghetti, duh)? And, if I remember correctly, the meatloaf of my childhood was usually accompanied by some objectionable vegetable like broccoli, adding insult to my pasta-less injury. (No disrespect to my mother’s meatloaf, of course. It just did not appeal to young palate. People change. Love you, Mom!)

A few year’s back, in the midst a dangerous, experimental mac-and-cheese stage (old habits die hard), I was perusing my cookbooks for an accompaniment to what I considered the night’s gooey, cheesy main attraction. That’s when I ran across a recipe for old-fashioned meatloaf in my golden go-to, The Gourmet Cookbook. A departure from the meatloaf Mom baked in bread loaf pans, this version was mounded free-form into an oval dome on baking sheet and slathered with ketchup. It sounded interesting enough, so we gave it a try, and a few year’s later it’s now a wintertime staple. While I have served this many times alongside a creamy pot of macaroni, it’s a star in and of itself. On a recent Sunday, though, a spaghetti-squash gratin was the side to what I consider to be a magnificent meatloaf. Pasta-less and still craveable? Whoodathunk it?

Old-Fashioned Meatloaf (Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)

2 cups onions, finely diced
1 rib celery, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
3 green onions, minced
2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup ketchup

2 pounds lean ground chuck
1 pound ground pork
1 cup dried breadcrumbs
2 eggs beaten lightly
1/3 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, sautee the onions, celery carrots, green onions and garlic in olive oil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent and the carrots are tender. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the Worcestershire sauce and 1/3 cup ketchup and stir, cooking for one additional minute. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine the the beef, pork, eggs, breadcrumbs and parsley. Incorporate the vegetable mixture into the meat, mixing with your hands. (Don’t over-mix.) Turn the meatloaf mixture onto a shallow baking pan, forming it into a mounded oval, about 10 by 5 inches. Spread the remaining 1/3 cup ketchup on the top. Bake in the oven for 1 hour or until the internal temperature reads 155 degrees. Remove from oven and loosely cover with foil. Let the loaf rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

Spaghetti Squash and Tomato Gratin (Adapted from Cooking Light)

1 medium spaghetti squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce canned whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
3 sprigs fresh oregano
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 15-ounce tub low-fat ricotta
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper

With a small, sharp knife, pierce the surface of the squash about 1-inch deep to prevent it from bursting. Put the whole squash in a microwave and cook on the highest setting for 6 to 7 minutes. Using oven mitts, turn the squash over and cook for an additional 8 to 10 minutes, until it feels slightly soft when pressed. Remove the squash from the microwave, and allow it to cool. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, and remove and discard the seeds from the middle. Run the tines of a fork through the flesh creating long spaghetti-like strands. (Should yield about four cups.) Set aside. (This step can be done ahead.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook stirring for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, crushed red pepper, oregano sprigs and thyme sprigs. Add salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 20 minutes until thickened. Remove and discard the woody stems of the oregano and thyme. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the ricotta and the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Add the chopped oregano and thyme and season with salt and pepper.

In a 9 by 13 casserole, make a base layer of spaghetti squash. Follow with a layer of tomatoes, spreading evenly over the squash. Top it off with the cheese mixture. Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, or until lightly browned on top.

(Alternatively, you can layer the squash, tomatoes and cheese in eight 8-ounce ramekins as called for in the the original recipe.)