Last week marked the third installment of my semi-regular dinners with my friends Willy and Patrick, whereby, in exchange for my home cooking, the two provide some type of refreshing alcoholic beverage and a dessert of some kind (preferably a selection of 35¢ Big Boy ice cream sandwiches). Being that Patrick is a vegetarian, these dinners challenge my creativity in the kitchen (which, for me, is great fun). Although I often cook and enjoy meat-free meals for myself, I feel that the ante is upped when I prepare them for a bona fide vegetarian: it's on me to make a filling and well-rounded plate that will satisfy someone who has eaten all manner of vegetarian creations, and knows what's good and what's not.
I can't speak for vegetarians, but as someone who cooks, I truly feel that eggs are the saving grace when it comes to meat-free meals. As I mentally ran through a variety of menu options for my dinner with the guys, I kept settling on things like pasta (which I had made for both of the other dinners: first with roasted vegetables and then with potatoes and pesto), some sort of Asian rice or noodle dish, or dishes founded on potatoes (something like, for example, colcannon ). I was thinking about starch, not about protein. And then suddenly I remembered that I had a nearly-full carton of eggs in my fridge that needed to be used up. I felt immensely relieved: yes, that will be tasty! Yes, that will be filling!
Once I had settled on making an egg dish, the rest of my plans fell into place quite naturally. Minimally intensive and maximally satisfying, a frittata fit the bill. Almost anything goes in a frittata--that's what makes it such a perfect food--but I decided to pack mine, this time, with potatoes, red peppers and spinach, three ingredients that I view as natural matches for each other. On the side, I prepared a quick garlic bread (simply a baguette, halved lengthwise, brushed with garlic-infused olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and toasted in the oven) as well as a salad of fresh baby spinach (left over from the frittata-making), peppery arugula, thinly sliced apples and toasted walnuts. Dinner conversation covered a range of topics, from opinions on men wearing V-necks (unanimously opposed), to anyone, man or woman, wearing shorts (Patrick and Willy approved; I demurred), to the greatness of the band the Vaselines and of trips outside of New York City. We didn't really talk about the food, but I think that the empty bread plate, the empty salad bowl, the nearly empty frittata pan (save for two slices) and the three empty ice cream sandwich wrappers spoke to our enjoyment of the dinner.
Potato, Red Pepper and Spinach Fritatta
Makes 8 wedges
1. Wash 3 large or 4 small waxy (new) potatoes. Cut them into bite-size pieces and place them in a small pot. Fill pot with enough cold water to just cover potatoes. Cover the pot and set it over high heat to bring water to a boil, then drop heat to medium and allow potatoes to cook at a low boil until tender, about 6 minutes more. Drain the potatoes.
2. Meanwhile, rinse one large red bell pepper and cut it open to remove seeds and ribs. Slice the pepper into long, thin strips and cook them slowly in about 2 tbsp. of olive oil in a deep, wide pan (preferably a 10" cast-iron skillet) set over medium heat. Season strips with salt and pepper and stir occasionally. The strips are done when they are tender and well-browned, about 15 - 18 minutes.
3. Increase the heat under the skillet of peppers to medium and begin to add handfuls of well-washed baby spinach or regular spinach, torn, to the pan. Season with salt and stir, allowing the spinach to wilt. Add about 5 cups of raw spinach; it will cook down to about 1 1/2 cups.
4. Add diced potatoes to the pan and stir to combine.
5. Meanwhile, beat 8 large eggs in a bowl, seasoning them with salt and pepper. Additionally, grate 1 cup of semifirm mild cheese, like Idiziabal, Manchego or Gruyere, and set aside.
6. Add about 1 tbsp. more olive oil to the pan and tilt to coat the bottom. Set flat and arrange vegetables in an even layer over the bottom of the pan. With the pan over medium heat, pour in the beaten eggs. Stir them only occasionally, so that they begin to set. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, pull the outer, set layer of eggs into the middle of the pan, and repeat.
7. When eggs begin to set more firmly, add the cheese, sprinkling it evenly over the eggs and stirring to combine. Preheat your oven's broiler. When it is hot, slide the skillet underneath and cook until the top of the fritatta is set and browned. Watch it closely! This should take about 4 - 6 minutes but may happen more quickly if your broiler is especially hot.
8. Remove the skillet from the oven and slice it into 8 wedges. Serve hot, warm or cold. We enjoyed the fritatta hot when I first made it and it was delicious, but when I ate it cold from the refrigerator the next day it was also great because I could taste the cheese more distinctly.
Spinach and Arugula Salad with Apples and Toasted Walnuts
1. Thoroughly wash and dry 1 large bunch of baby spinach. Pick off large or tough stems and place the spinach in a large bowl.
2. Thoroughly wash and dry 1 large bunch of arugula. Pick off large or tough stems and either tear or slice the arugula into wide ribbons. Place in the bowl.
3. Core 1 tart green apple and cut it into wedges. Slice each wedge into about 8 or 10 very thin slices and add them to the bowl.
4. Toast about 3/4 cup walnuts, either in a small pan over medium heat or in a 300° oven, for about 6 minutes. Let cool completely. Add to bowl.
5. Prepare a simple vinaigrette for the salad. Stir together a mix of red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar (about 1/3 cup total) with salt and pepper. Whisk in about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Pour mixture over salad and toss until evenly coated. Serve at once.