Jayne McAllister

Travel Wellness Expert and Author

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It Was Going To Be Vegan But Someone Put Pancetta In The Fridge

Fresh from the farm...

Fresh from the farm…

Having bought a beautiful medley of mushrooms at the farmers’ market, I started dreaming of Italy.  To this day, my husband and I still rave about one of the best pasta dishes we ever had: pappardelle and mushrooms at Rome’s Fiumicino airport of all places.  Am I going to recreate it here? No, sorry.  That was the original intention but as I delved into recipes to find a suitable vehicle for my fabulous funghi, I was distracted.  Kind of like when you go into the kitchen to get a glass of water and forget why you’re there.

Perfect with polenta, pasta, or spaghetti squash.

Perfect with polenta, pasta, or spaghetti squash.

My ‘shroom searching led me to Mario Batali’s Sugo Di Funghi E Porro (Mushroom and Leek Ragu).  Since I’d picked up leeks at the farmers’ market too, it seemed to be emminently auspicious.  A vegan alternative to a traditional ragu bolognese, which I also love, was in order.  Until that is, I found some pancetta in the fridge and, since bacon or its Italian cousin go with everything, I couldn’t resist.

The traditional way...

The traditional way…

Mario serves this with fresh tagliatelle.  We weren’t in the mood to make fresh pasta so I went for two wheat-free options.  I made polenta and then handed it over to the grill-meister. If you’ve never grilled polenta, I highly recommend it.  Then I roasted a spaghetti squash and played pretend.  The sauce is so delicious, you don’t notice the absence of pasta and the squash is filling.  I make double the quantity of sauce and freeze it so I have a quick, easy meal at any time.  You can even serve it over pasta! (My husband had the leftover ragu with rigatoni as you can see above).

Mushroom and Leek Ragu

Serves 6

  • 2 thick slices pancetta (or any bacon that’s in the fridge), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 pound wild mushrooms (porcini, chanterelles ((if you can find them…)), crimini or oysters, preferably a mix)
  • 1/2 onion chopped
  • 2 leeks, washed and cut in half lengthways and into 1/2-inch rounds
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup Mario Batali’s basic tomato sauce or GOOD store-bought marinara sauce
  • Wee bit of red wine or stock
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano, for grating

Mario’s basic tomato sauce recipe is at http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/basic-tomato-sauce-recipe12/index.html

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12- to 14-inch saute pan over medium-high heat.  Cook pancetta until crispy and fat is rendered.  Remove from pan with slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.

This ragu is delicious with spaghetti squash.

This ragu is delicious with spaghetti squash.

Increase heat to high and add 2 remaining tablespoons olive oil.  Working in batches, add the mushrooms and saute over high heat until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes per batch.  The mushrooms should not release their juices.  Remove the mushrooms and add the onion, leeks, garlic, thyme leaves and salt and pepper to taste. (Go lightly on the salt; you can adjust the seasoning after you add the pancetta back in).

Cook for 5 more minutes, then add the tomato sauce.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and add the pancetta and mushrooms.  If needed, add stock or red wine by the 1/4 cup (if wine, just make sure it’s not from your glass).  Cook 10 more minutes and set aside.

Serve with pasta, grilled polenta or spaghetti squash.



A Holiday Meal Made For Two

Ready for Serving.The Holidays are about sharing with family and friends, an elaborate meal with all the trimmings. But what if? What if you find yourself in a situation where the family are miles away and they can’t travel to you because they’re set in their own traditions or airfare is too exorbitant.  What if you can’t leave town to travel to them because you have work obligations.  You’re an empty nester. You’re new in town and don’t know anyone. Or, you simply want to enjoy a day or two off in your own space AND cook a sumptuous meal that you can eat whenever you want.

Maybe the football isn’t quite over and you don’t have to worry about missing the end of the game or keeping ten people waiting.  Maybe you don’t want a huge meal with tons of leftovers.  You might be on a journey to health and a traditional dinner would look paltry (meant to be pun on “poultry”) if you tried the light version.  Here’s your answer.

Four years ago, Bon Appetit ran a recipe from Blue Velvet in LA. around the time my husband and I were to have our first Holiday alone. Sounds grim – I mean just the two of us. We weren’t about to embark on an elaborate turkey journey, although we could have.  We’re reluctant to eat the meat of a vulture that eats its own feces but we can play along for the best of parties.

Frankly, I’d rather eat the sides.  But, we’re at a certain age in which we watch our fluctuating waistlines thus we’re really not anxious to be left with a bunch of wilting veg and heavy sides to eat over the course of several days.  So, leafing through the December 2008 issue of Bon Appetit, there it was. A recipe that sounded completely absurd but very interesting.  With no one to answer to but ourselves, we had nothing to lose.

It sounded like we had found the perfect diner a deux. And we were right.  In fact, we have made this our “go to” dinner for Thanksgiving and Christmas since 2008.  I’m delighted to share with you Duck with Lentils and Bacon-Date Puree. 

This warm lentil salad goes beautifully with the duck and the puree.

This warm lentil salad goes beautifully with the duck and the puree.

What’s different about this menu? It’s portion controlled – do one duck breast per two diners. Most of it can be prepared ahead of time (and thus pots cleaned and put away before the main event).  It delivers a huge amount of flavor.  You can argue that it’s healthy or at least healthier than a traditional Holiday dinner.  It reminds me of France.  It ranks up there when I’m asked, “What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?”

Duck with Lentils and Bacon-Date Puree

The recipe seems really long, but you can make the bacon-date puree and the lentils at your leisure, put them into serving dishes, and wash and put away the pans.  When you’re ready to eat, whoever’s in charge of sauteeing the duck can go for it while you sit and have a glass of wine.

6 servings if you have company. If not, I make the full amount of lentils and bacon-date puree, then my husband sears a duck breast as we need it. Be warned – that tends to be just about every day until the puree has gone.

We order our magret de canard (duck breast) fresh from www.dartagnan.com.

Bacon-Date Puree

  • 3 slices thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2 thick pieces
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 1 1/2 cups (packed) pitted dates (about 10 ounces)
  • 1 1/4 cups (or more) water


  • 8 cups water
  • 1 cup French green lentils (lentilles de puy – you can find them in finer food stores.  They hold their shape the best so hold out for them rather than regular brown or green lentils.  Red lentils are for Indian food).
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stick, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped shallots
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar


  • 3 1-pound Muscovy duck breast halves with skin
  • 1 large shallot, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Sherry wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup low-salt chicken broth

Bacon-Date Puree: Saute bacon in small saucepan over medium heat until crisp.  Stir in brandy, scraping up browned bits.  Add dates and 1 1/4 cups water; bring to boil.  Reduce heat to medium and simmer until dates are very soft, about 12 minutes.  Transfer to blender.  Puree date mixuter until smooth, adding more water by tablespoonfuls if too thick to blend.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Can be made 3 days ahead.  Cover and chill.

Lentils: Place 8 cups water, lentils, garlic, and bay leaves in medium saucepan.  Sprinkle with salt.  Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer until lentils are just tender but still firm to bite, about 15 minutes or longer, depending on type of lentils.  Drain; rinse under cold water to coll.  Drain; discard garlic and bay leaves. Transfer to large bowl.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy medium skillet over medium heat.  Add carrot, celery, and 1/3 cup shallots.  Saute until carrots and celery are crisp-tender, about 4 minutes.  Stir carrot mixture into lentils.  Mix remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons shallots and red wine vinegar in small bowl.  Let mixture soak 5 minutes then whisk in remaining 6 tablespoons oil.  Add vinaigrette to lentil mixture; toss to coat.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Can be made 2 hours ahead.  Let stand at room temperature.

Perfectly cooked...

Perfectly cooked…

Duck: Using sharp knife, score skin of duck breasts diagonally to creat 3/4-inch-wide diamond pattern.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Heat 1 large skillet and 1 medium skillet over medium-high heat.  Place 2 duck breasts in large skillet and 1 duck breast in medium skillet, skin side down.  Cook until skin is brown and crisp, about 8 minutes.

Turn duck, skin side up, and cook until brown and thermometer inserted horizontally into center registers 130F, about 6 minutes.  Transfer duck to work surface.  Drain all but 1 tablespoon fat from 1 skillet.  Add shallot and saute until beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.  Add Sherry vinegar and stir, scraping up browned bits.  Add broth; bring to boil.  Season sauce with salt and pepper.

Thinly slice duck breasts.  Spoon 1/4 cup date puree in center of each of 6 plates and spread with back of spoon, forming well in center; spoon lentils into each well.  Place duck breast slices atop lentils, divinding equally.  Drizzle sauce over and serve.