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Home plate: Winter, a time to cook

 As winter winds howl, it’s time to fire up the stove. There’s no garden to weed, lawn to mow or a beach beckoning. Might as well cook.

Sausage Ragout  This recipe comes from “The Silver Palate,” a cookbook that raises the bar, when it comes to culinary endeavors (but well worth the effort).  1 ½ pounds sweet Italian sausage  1 ½ pounds hot Italian sausage  ¼ cup best quality olive oil  1 large yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped  3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced  2 green peppers, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped  2 red peppers, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped  8 fresh Italian plum tomatoes, quartered  1 cup spicy tomato sauce (recipe to follow)  ½ cup of hearty, dry red wine  ½ cup minced Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, plus additional for garnish  Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste  Cut the sausages into ½-inch slices. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat and add the sausage pieces. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage pieces are well browned.  Add the onion and garlic and cook for another 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meat mixture to a deep casserole.  Set the casserole over medium heat and add the peppers. Cook, stirring, until the peppers are slightly wilted, about 7 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, wine and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Taste, correct the seasoning, and serve immediately, sprinkled with chopped parsley.  Serve this with buttered pasta or mashed potatoes. Six servings.

Spicy tomato sauce: (This can be used with lasagna or other Italian dishes)  ½ cup best-quality olive oil  2 cups finely chopped yellow onions  4 pound ripe plum or other meaty tomatoes, skinned and seeded  1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste  2 tablespoons minced, fresh basil  ½ teaspoon dried oregano  1 teaspoon salt  1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper  4 cups water  5 garlic cloves  ½ cup finely chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley  Heat the olive oil in a large deep pot over low heat. Add the onions and cook, covered until tender and lightly colored, about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the water and cook very slowly uncovered for 3 hours. Stir in the garlic and parsley and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning. Use immediately, or cool to room temperature before covering. Refrigerate or freeze. Makes three quarts.

The Splendid Table’s 21st Century Mac n Cheese  My kids were mac and cheese fans as young ’uns; I wish I’d found this recipe then… I confess; it came from the box. And I certainly would have partaken of this, too!  This can be made as rich as you’d like by choosing milk, half-and-half or heavy cream. It serves four, but doubles easily. And it can be made a day ahead and baked just before the dinner bell is about to dong.  3 quarts salted water in a 4-quart pot  ½ pound (2 cups) elbow macaroni or penne pasta  1 large egg  1cup milk, half-and-half- or heavy cream  1 garlic clove  ¾ of  a medium onion, coarsely chopped  1 generous cup (5 ounces) shredded good-quality, extra-sharp cheddar cheese  5 ounces cream cheese, crumbled  2/3 cup (3 ounces) Gruyere cheese  Generous 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes  Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt  Generous ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper  Generous ¼ teaspoon sweet paprika, Hungarian or Spanish  3 tablespoons unsalted butter  12 saltines, coarsely crumbled  Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop in the macaroni or penne. Boil, stirring often, until the pasta is tender but still with a bit of firmness. Drain in a colander.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a shallow 1½-quart baking dish and add the cooked macaroni.  In a blender or food processor, combine the egg, milk and garlic. Process for 3 seconds. Add the onion, cheeses, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper and paprika, and blend for 10 seconds, or until the onion is cut down to small pieces and the ingredients are blended. Turn the mixture into the dish, folding it into the macaroni. (At this point, the casserole can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)  To bake, bring the casserole close to room temperature if it has been refrigerated. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the saltine crumbles, and coat them with the butter. Spread them over the top of the casserole. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until thick, yet creamy. If the top is not golden brown, slip the casserole until the broiler for a minute. Remove it from the oven and let it stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Chicken Cosima  This is a recipe from “Simply Nigella, Feel Good Food,” to whom I was introduced to author Nigella Lawson through a Minnesota Public Radio broadcast. I found her take on food to be refreshingly unique – as are her “directions.”  2 ½ - 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour  1 teaspoon ground coriander  1 teaspoon ground cumin  ½ teaspoon ground turmeric  ½ teaspoon paprika  ½ teaspoon sea salt flakes or kosher salt  6 large skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized chunks  1 tablespoon olive oil  1 onion, peeled and chopped  1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into one-inch chunks  2 cups hot chicken broth  3 cups chickpeas, home-cooked or drained from cans  Chopped cilantro, to serve  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Measure the flour, spices and salt into a re-sealable bag and then add chicken, shaking the bag to coat the chicken. Retain flour mixture.  Heat the oil with a wide Dutch oven or pan (with a lid), and fry the onion until softened, but not colored.  Add the chicken and the contents of the bag to the pan and stir for a minute or so, then add the peeled and chopped sweet potatoes and stir again.  Pour in the hot broth, then bring the pan up to a boil and tip in the drained chickpeas. Give it another good stir, then clap on the lid and put in the oven for 25 minutes. Check that the chicken is cooked through and sweet potatoes are tender, then remove from the oven and leave with the lid on to stand for about 10 minutes. Serve with chopped cilantro.