Easy Sausage and Peppers

King Soopers is having a sale on bell peppers — red, yellow and green all 10 for $10. It’s unusual, around here anyway, for the yellow and red to be as inexpensive as the green. I bought a bunch, roasted some and still had a few left over. Having spent my formative years in the Northeast, that Italian-American staple of Sausage and Peppers was the first (and perhaps only) dish that popped into my mind. I’m not sure why I specified “easy” on this post, because this is a dish that is always easy, whether the sausage is cooked whole and then cut into pieces or cut into pieces and then cooked, and whether it is made with one, two or three colors of bell pepper. Here’s the way I prepared them.

Sausage and Peppers

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces (I used sweet turkey sausage, but pork sausage or hot sausage would work well too)
1 each green, yellow and red pepper bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in large, heavy skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until golden, about 1 minute. Mix in sausage and cook until browned, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add peppers and onion, and cook until almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Stir in in tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Turn down the heat to low, cover and simmer 25 minutes. Uncover and cook for another minutes.

I served the Sausage and Peppers with penne (tubular pasta), cooked al dente, with freshly Parmesan on the side. Two of us ate generous portions, and there’s enough left for two more meals.

Cooking Wine? Cheap Is Fine!

I’m not one to take issue with the late, great Julia Child — except I’ve never been able to buy into her dictum, “If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.” I have never had the heart to “waste” a fairly expensive wine by cooking with it, especially for recipes using a substantial quantity of wine. Julia’s own Boeuf Bourguinon and Coq au Vin recipes for four to six people call for three cups of “young, full-bodied red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone or Chianti.”

When I made Coq au Vin last week, I used some nouveau Beaujolais left over from Thanksgiving (!!!) that wasn’t great to drink then and certainly couldn’t have improved with age. (Disclaimer: One of our guests had brought the Georges Duboeuf liter-and-half nouveau. Only in the best year would this near-jug wine be a good risk for a holiday dinner for a dozen guests, and it was one that we probably would not have chosen.) Still, 3 1/2 months later, no one noticed or complained about the Coq au Vin due to the inferior wine that I used.

Therefore, thank you, Julia Moskin, New York Times food section staff writer, for “It Boils Down to This: Cheap Wine Works Fine” in today’s paper. She laid to rest what she calls “the new gospel: Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” She cooked four dishes with three kinds of wine from very inexpensive to very dear. Her conclusion validates my long-time contention that wine doesn’t need to be divinely drinkable in order to work admirably in a recipe.

She wrote, “Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.

“It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.”

The rule of thumb for recipe success seems to be to use red, white, dry, sweet or whatever called for in a particular dish but not to worry too much about the price tag on the bottle. It’s one I’ve always used.

Weeknight Company Menu

We had friends over yesterday evening to celebrate a pair of birthdays, but when it came to dinner preparation, I really had just about three hours to cook, polish a few pieces of tarnished silver and set the table. Here’s what I made.

Hors d’Oeuvres (with wine or a cocktail)
Crackers and three cheeses

Soup
“My Mom’s 15 Minute Tomato and Bean Soup” from 2, 4, 6, 8 – Great Meals for Couples or Crowds by Rachael Ray. The soup indeed cooks in just 15 minutes, though I let it go longer, but that does not count the time necessary to chop or slice the garlic, onions, carrots, celery and zucchini — other ingredients are good-quality canned tomato products and beans.

Entree (with red or white wine)
Coq au Vin – I read several recipes and winged it. Recipe follows.
Saffron Rice made with good-quality prepared stock
Buttered Baby Carrots

Dessert (with champagne and coffee)
Fresh Berry Tart. Recipe follows.

Recipes:

Coq au Vin
Coat six chicken thighs lightly in flour and saute in butter and oil over medium-high heat until well browned. Meanwhile, cook four or five good bacon strips, drain on paper towels and cool. Remove chicken from saute pan. Add frozen pearl onions in an amount to taste. Saute until they begin to brown. Remove onions and drain most of the fat from the pan. Deglaze pan with about 1 1/2 cup red wine. Add about 1 cup chicken stock. Return chicken and onions to pan. Salt, pepper and thyme to taste. Add about 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms or mushroom caps and crumbled bacon. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce thickens. In a heavy saute pan with a tight-fitting lid, this will keep warm for a couple of hours, requiring only a quick reheating.

Fresh Berry Tart
Because I didn’t have time to bake, I bought a Tortenboden, available at King Soopers and labeled Imported Bavarian Sponge Cake. The importer is World Finer Foods. I whipped half a pint of heavy cream, added some confectioner’s sugar and a splash of rum,, then spread it in the prepared cake base and topped it with fresh raspberries and strawberries.

Here’s an oddball fitness note, especially for anyone trying to take the current medical recommendation of at least 10,000 steps a day. I bought a pedometer some months back and wore it while cooking, just for the heck of it. I don’t have a particularly large kitchen (in fact, it is quite modest in size), but preparing the meal, setting the table and making three laundry trips downstairs required just over 4,500 steps — not aerobic by any stretch, but steps nonetheless.

Two New Pearl Street Eateries

Vasa Bar & Grill, a name that sounds to me as if it should be a Viking ship or Scandinavian flatbread (and in fact is both), is a Japanese-style eatery that finally opened on the prominent corner of 15th Street and the Pearl Street Mall. And when I write “finally,” I mean it, because the place has been under construction since early last summer. Some weeks ago, Vasa opened with discretion bordering on secrecy. In the first days (or maybe weeks) of operations, they kept the bamboo shades lowered outside of serving hours, which made it look like a construction site even after every tasteful object was in place and the “Now Hiring” sign was off the fence. Vasa is still a tad hard to spot, because their own sign is small and tasteful white-on-black, while above a corner of Vasa’s storefront (on the Pearl Street side), the plastic sign for the Subway nextdoor glares. Why did the Downtown Management Commission or other permitting agency even allow that? I haven’t eaten at Vasa yet. I don’t know exactly what they serve nor even their phone number. They don’t seem to have a website either. But remember that you read it here first, even if without details.

In the 1521 Pearl Street space vacated by Allison Espresso and Pastry Boutique, the newspapers have come off the windows and The Cup is now taking shape. Gone are the shabby-chic mismatched tables and chairs. In their place are stylish ash and chrome furniture. The counter is being rebuilt, and the chalkboard propped up in the window promises pastries, bagels, paninis and all sorts of espresso drinks and other beverages. No phone number or opening date yet, but again, remember that you read it here first.

Asian Food Resources In and Around Boulder

Wok around the clock — and other thoughts about Asian foods and utensils

Many years and one marriage back, one of the wedding gifts my first husband and I received was a wok (along with a wok stand that fits over the burners of a gas range, a ladle, a Chinese spatula, a Chinese strainer, a Chinese cleaver and a basic cookbook). The wok wasn’t one of those American Teflon-coated, flat-bottom models — or, heaven forbid, an electric one. Round-bottomed and double handled (similar to the one on the right, sold by Asia Foods International), it and the accompanying utensils were made of iron and had to be seasoned so they wouldn’t rust. I seasoned them. They’ve never rusted. And I use them still.

While I’ve always loved to eat Chinese food, preparing it was intimidating, so I took some hands-on classes at the China Institute in New York — the first cooking classes I ever attended. I learned the Chinese way of chopping, stir frying, steaming and “red cooking.” I still have the recipes in a looseleaf binder, along with others that I’ve clipped (and of course other Chinese cookbooks too). Our instructor also took us on a field trip to Chinatown, where we focused on ingredients and the best places to buy them rather than which restaurant we were going to try. Chinese recipes haven’t scared me since then.

Over the years, I also started occasionally making dishes from other Asian cultures. A friend who was moving back to the US from Holland came to stay with us, laden with seasonings for an Indonesian rijstaffel. We planned a party for about 20 people and spent a great two days preparing the feast. I didn’t then own a food processor, so we did all the slicing, chopping and mincing by hand — hence the two days. I later prepared another rijstaffel by myself, that time with the help of a food processor. It took me a bit less than full a day — about the amount of time I usually spend making Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Over the years, I’ve also prepared Indian and Thai recipes, and I have a shelf full of Asian spices at hand.

When I need something now, there’s no Chinatown, so I wander around to Boulder’s Asian stores, down to Denver’s more abundant markets or to Broomfield’s enormous Pacific Ocean Market (at 6600 West 120th Avenue if you are looking for it). Boulder Daily Camera food editor Cindy Sutter did the same thing, exploring nearby Asian groceries. She wrote a pair of complementary features on where to get ingredients under the overall headline of “Spice Up Your Pantry.” I especially like the part titled “A Tour of Asia on the Front Range” that focused on select Asian markets.
That reminds me. I’m out of star anise. Time to go shopping again.

Superstar Salad Bar

We went to a South American-style steakhouse last night, and what impressed me most at Texas de Brazil was the salad bar (a tiny corner of which is shown, right). Restaurateur Salim Aswari, who opened the first American rendition of the Brazilian churrascaria in Addison, TX, in 1998, told a Dallas Observor, “We want to be the P.F. Chang’s of steakhouses.” Good for his bank balance (the privately held chain raked in $50 million last year), but not inspiring for diners who want something other than a “concept” that will fly across the country.

There are (or will be by the end of 2007) three Texas de Brazil restaurants clustered around Dallas (Dallas, Fort Worth and the original in Addison), three in Florida (Miami, Orlando and Miami Beach), two in Virginia (Norfolk and Fairfax), two in Illinois (Schaumburg and Chicago) and one each in Las Vegas and Denver — the last where my husband and I and two other couples went last night.

Churrasco, the Brazilian equivalent of barbecue, is derived from on-the-range grilling in the cattle lands of the southern part of the country. Brazil de Texas’s all-you-can-eat shtick involves a squadron of “gauchos” who bustle from table to table with chunks of open-fire grilled meats skewered onto big swords, like shishkebobs on steroids. Each “gaucho” comes around bearing two skewers of beef (filet or picanha, a seasoned top sirloin that is the house specialty), pork, lamb, Brazilian sausage or chicken, which he will flick onto your plate on request. Want your meat medium-rare? The piece on the bottom of the skewer is medium-rare. Want it medium-well? The piece on the bottom of the skewer is medium-well. The picanha was best-tasting of the meats. The chicken was tender but didn’t have much flavor — not even bacon flavor to the bacon-wrapped chicken or any hint of cheese in the grilled Parmesan chicken. Small sides of garlic mashed potatoes and grilled bananas (“to cleanse your palate,” explained the waiter) were brought to the table. Bottom line is that not even the most ardent carnivores among us truly raved about the meats.

The salad bar was the star of the meal, and it is such a star that I’d return just for that. The 50 or 60 items were opulently displayed as if on a cruise ship or at a Club Med, but the offerings were not just there for show. Here, quality matched quantity, and everything tasted really good. One bowl held romaine lettuce hearts and one contained mixed greens, but there were no sprouts, no grated carrots, no underripe tomatoes, no radishes, no cottage cheese, no straight-from-the-can beans or chickpeas, no wilted green peppers — in short, nothing that makes the average salad bar so depressing.

Everything (and I mean everything) so artfully arranged on a large, square buffet, was over-the-top beautiful and very good or better than that: balls of fresh buffalo mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, gorgonzola, goat cheese terrine, spiced mixed olives, Greek olives, pepperoncini, grilled red and yellow peppers, grilled eggplant, grilled portabello mushrooms, sauteed button mushrooms, steamed asparagus, pesto-topped tomato halves, Italian cold meats, crisp bacon, cold shrimp, hearts of palm, salmon and rare ahi tuna (each with an appropriate sauce) and so much more. In addition to house-made dressings (doubtless from company recipes), a shelf above the main buffet held a fabulous assortment of olive oils and vinegars so that those of us who like to dress our own salads can do so and also baskets of fresh, nicely crusty bread. I was happy to see a bowl of chimichurri, a South American condiment that comes in many variations. The Texas de Brazil rendition isn’t very garlicky, but a tasty herb blend nonetheless.

A smaller linear buffet held soup (a slightly oversalted lobster bisque was the soup of the day), jasmine rice, Brazilian black beans and probably another side dish or two that I can’t recall. There was also a small selection of pre-made sushi — OK considering that it is served at a Brazilian-themed steakhouse but otherwise a weird combination — Japan de Brazil, perhaps? There were two desserts — a “traditional Key lime pie” whose center was so cold it seemed to have recently emerged from the freezer (I wonder when it was baked) and a far better bananas Foster pie. which the waiter described as “bananas Foster cheesecake.” Each chef selects a handful of nightly desserts from the company’s list.

The dramatic restaurant has high ceilings, huge lighting fixtures, lots of dark wood and lavish out-of-reach flower arrangements that I’m guessing are fake. A tall, glassed-in wine room displays many bottles, but because there was a special on Beringer wines as part of the Denver Restaurant Week promotion, my husband and I shared a bottle of very nice bottle Beringer Knights Valley Reserve cabernet sauvignon, a steal at the restaurant week price of $26.80. I understand that Texas de Brazil is planning to introduce private-label wines made from Portuguese grapes.

Other than my misgivings about multi-restaurant “concepts” that leave little or no room for individual chefs’ interpretations, Texas de Brazil does not lend itself to a seamless dining experience. Granted, we were there on a non-snowy Friday evening that happened to be the last night of Denver Restaurant Week, but the service component was, by its nature, intrusive. We were seated in a small, very dimly lit room fortuitously separated from the main part of the restaurant with sliding walls, enableing the six of us to hear each other), but the waiter insisted on launching his long, well-memorized recitation of how the concept works while we wine drinkers were still squinting at the wine list.

Individual second trips to the salad bar are par for the course conversation interrupters, but the person who leaves voluntarily removes him- or herself from the flow, but the steady procession of gauchos offering more of this, that or the other meat was somewhat intrusive. It can’t be helped, given the concept, but still…

Again, I acknowledge that we were there at a very busy time, but when a server offered to clear our salad plates and bring clean ones for the main course, I wasn’t quite finished with my salad but said that I would like a clean plate. He came back with one for everyone else but not for me, although I had finished my salad by the time he returned. I had to ask three different people for a clean plate before one finally materialized.

Texas de Brazil does have an a la carte menu, but we didn’t even consider it, because the two for $52.80 Denver Restaurant Week offer that lured us there in the first place. I”m not sure what the regular price is, but I think it’s about $38-$40 per person, still a good value for all that food and that fabulous salad bar.

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.