Archive for the 'pasta' Category

jewish ravioli: cheese kreplach

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Gevalt. My shoulders hurt, my back hurts. My triceps are no longer on speaking terms with me, and they’re whispering mutiny to the biceps. Yesterday, I made my own dumplings out of hand-rolled dough without the use of a pasta machine. Now I know what it must have felt like to be a housewife in a 19th century shtetl. All I need is a washboard for the laundry and a roof for my husband to fiddle on as he sings “TRADITION! TRADITION!

I know, I know. It sounds like hyperbole. But try it, you’ll see what I mean. Making the dough is fun at first. It involves mixing some beaten eggs into a mound of flour with a fork. At a certain point, you dispense with the fork altogether and use your hands. The joy of messiness, the kneading… it’s an adult version of play dough. After letting the dough rest, the rolling begins. If you’ve rolled your own pie crust, you may not think much of this part. Ah, but pasta dough must be thin, thin, thin—like paper, like silk. When you’ve been rolling a while and realize that your dough is still thick as pie dough, you begin to wonder how much longer. You throw yourself into it, using your weight to apply more pressure on the dough. You sweat through your t-shirt. You think “holy cannoli! What was I thinking?” Just when you decide to settle for
thick, lumpy kreplach, you roll just a little longer until the sheet of pasta is smooth and thin as it can get.

But you’re not done yet. You have to cut little circles with an upside down glass, being careful to place the circles as close together as possible so as not to waste too much dough. Then each circle must be brushed with water, filled with filling, and pressed closed. The pressing is an art in itself. The filling can’t be too much or too little, so that it fills the dough just enough without poking out the sides. The edges must be pressed together carefully around the filling without any air bubbles. Then the edges must be brought together, one side brushed with water, and pressed together firmly as though the dumpling is wringing its hands in front of its plump belly. But the dough must be soft and pliable enough that the belly doesn’t burst, spewing its cheesy contents. It’s painstaking work, alternately exasperating and meditative. But the result is that much more luxurious and tasty when you’ve worked so hard to make it yourself.

If you’re short on time and patience for hard labor, you could run your dough through a pasta machine. It’s probably best to run it through the highest to the lowest setting for a really thin, silky dough. You could use one of those plastic ravioli pressing gadgets that works like a waffle iron
, if you don’t feel like pressing the dumplings yourself. You could press the dumplings like kreplach (triangular wontons), or pelmeni (Russian tortellini). I gravitated towards tortellini style dumplings, as I thought they might better keep their shape and hold their filling (those wringing hands tend to hold the stuffing). But traditional kreplach triangles might be easier to make and certainly less time-consuming. (I’ve always felt that the triangular tips of kreplach or wontons are like delicate little pasta fins, the dumplings quietly swimming in your soup.)

I stuffed my kreplach with a cheese filling in honor of Shavuoth, the Jewish festival of the ten commandments. It is traditional to prepare all manner of dairy foods for this holiday, unlike most holidays where meat and fish are the festive foods. Jewish lore has it that the Israelites did not know how to keep kosher, as they hadn’t yet received the ten commandments. So they ate only dairy foods so as not to eat any animals that weren’t sanctioned by the law. (How did they know the law would prohibit the consumption of certain creatures? Good point. But again, this is lore…)

Back in Russia and Poland, Jews would prepare cheese kreplach served with fried onions or a dusting of sugar, sometimes sour cream or perhaps a bit of jam. The name, size and shape of the dumplings might vary depending on the region. I’ve prepared mine with a filling of goat cheese and za’atar, putting a Mediterranean twist on the Eastern European dish. As for toppings, I’ve used fried onions, leftover goat cheese instead of sour cream and plum jam. Yes, all three. The combination of flavors works surprisingly well.

Other traditional ways to serve kreplach include frying them with onions, or boiling them and then serving them in soup. Kreplach can be stuffed with potatoes, beef, chicken liver, or a combination of beef and pork if you want to make Ukrainian pelmeni (a non-Jewish cousin of the traditional kreple). You could alternatively make a sort of kreplach lasagne, layering sheets of fresh pasta with filling and toppings. How do you like your kreplach?

cheese kreplach for shavuoth

for the filling:
10 oz. soft goat cheese (chevre), or other cheese of similar consistency
5 stalks fresh za’atar, or other fresh herb such as dill, parsley, chives, oregano
salt and white pepper to taste
1 small egg

for the dough (adapted from a recipe in the NY Times):
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 large eggs
lukewarm water, if necessary

for the topping:
goat cheese or sour cream or smetana
1-2 diced onions
butter
good plum jam (should be a little loose—I used June Taylor’s Elephant Heart plum conserve)

Preparing the filling:

  • In a large bowl, crumble in the cheese.
  • Hold the top of a stalk of za’atar with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. With the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, gently slide your fingers down the stalk, catching the leaves as they fall. Repeat for the remaining stalks. (This works for oregano as well, but any of the other herbs should simply be finely chopped.)
  • Rip or chop the za’atar and throw it into the bowl of cheese.
  • Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Taste and correct seasoning. Add a beaten egg and stir to combine.

Making the dough:

  • On a large, clean flat surface (a wooden table would be good), make a hill of flour. Form a well in the center of the hill.
  • Beat the eggs lightly and pour them into the well. Begin mixing the flour into the eggs with a fork.
  • At some point, you’ll want to use your hands to mix the egg and flour. If the mixture appears dry, add a little lukewarm water (say 1 or 2 tablespoons). My dough was moist with just the egg.
  • Knead the dough well, then let sit covered with a bowl or plastic wrap for 30 minutes.

Rolling the dough:

  • Separate the dough into two parts, leaving one portion under the bowl. Take the other half and begin to flatten and stretch it a bit with your hands.
  • Flour your surface and start rolling. You can use a pasta machine for this part. Roll the dough into an oblong shape rather than a circle. Be sure to move your dough frequently so that it doesn’t stick to the surface. Flour your surface just enough to keep the dough from sticking. You can patch any holes or cracks.
  • Roll until you can’t roll anymore, and then roll a bit more. You want to get your dough as thin and smooth as possible. Remember, the pasta will absorb water and expand when cooked. Feel the thickness of your dough and try to imagine what it might taste like when cooked. If it tastes like a mouthful of dough, you need to keep rolling.
  • When finished rolling, you might want to sprinkle a little water on the dough if it looks a bit dry.

Cutting the dough:

  • Use a glass with a 3 inch diameter to cut circles of dough. Use a dull knife to help cut the dough if necessary. Try to minimize the space between each circle of dough so as to avoid excess scrap dough.
  • When finished cutting the circles, collect the scraps and mush them into a ball. Place the ball under the bowl of resting dough.

Filling and shaping the dumplings:

  • With a barely damp pastry brush, brush one circle with a little water, mostly around the edges.
  • Place about a teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle.
  • Bring one end of the dough over the other in a half circle sandwich of dough and filling. Use your fingers to press the edges of the dough from one edge of the semi-circle to the other, while gently smoothing out any air bubbles along the edge of the filling. Dance your fingers along the edges again to get a good seal.
  • You can stop here, or you can continue folding the edges tortellini style. To do this:
    • Brush a little water on one tip of the semi-circle.
    • Then gently wrap the tips over your forefinger, the wet tip under the dry one.
    • Use your thumb to squeeze the tips against your forefinger, sealing them together.
    • Remove your forefinger, and gently squish the tips the other way (vertically).
  • Place the dumpling on a lightly floured plate. (I used two plates for my dumplings, simply to avoid the hassle of stacking them on top of each other, in case they stuck.)
  • Repeat for the remaining dough circles.
  • Take out the second piece of dough and follow the rolling, cutting, filling and shaping instructions. You can ball up and roll out the scraps too, or slice them into jagged, randomly shaped noodles. These can be cooked briefly before boiling the kreplach. Drain and slather with butter for snacking on while the kreplach cook.

Cooking the dumplings:

  • In a large skillet, melt some butter and fry the chopped onions on a medium to low flame until golden brown.
  • Boil heavily salted water for the dumplings. When the water is boiling gently, tip the plates of dumplings into the pot.
  • Agitate the pot lightly so that the dumplings don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the kreplach float to the top.
  • Remove the kreplach with a slotted spoon, draining the water.
  • Top with fried onions, cheese or sour cream, and finally plum jam.

Serves 2-4

I picked up some great pasta making techniques from a class given by the inimitable Omnivorous Fish. Useful links here and here.

dinner in twenty minutes

Friday, February 15th, 2008

spinach pasta

People often lament their lack of time to cook a nice meal for dinner, opting for takeout instead. Lord knows, I’ve been known to do the same. When you come home from work at 7:oo or later, cooking is the last thing on your mind. My first instinct is to curl up on the couch and watch a silly science fiction show with my husband and dog, munching on whatever happens to be in the refrigerator or whatever we can get from the local tacqueria without waiting in line with the rest of the neighborhood. Other times I look at the beautiful vegetables I bought at the farmers’ market and think it would be a shame for them to go to waste. I mean look at that chard… its succulent, deep green leaves, its sturdy stalk. Can’t you just feel its crunch between your teeth? Can’t you taste the garlic clove in the butter in which you’ll wilt it? How long would it really take to turn that beauty into dinner? It’s that moment when I change my mind and get to cooking something fast.

Here’s a little something I threw together the other night. I’m not sure whether it took me twenty minutes, as I spent some time perusing the fridge and cobbling together the shape of the meal. The base is pasta, with a sauce of spinach and goat cheese and a bit of ground cayenne pepper to liven it up.

quick pasta with spinach goat cheese sauce

I used savoy, or curly leaf spinach for this pasta dish. The leaves are small, curly and somewhat more waxy than ordinary spinach. As a result, it releases less moisture during cooking and wilts a little less. It also has a slightly nutty flavor which goes nicely with the pine nuts. You could use ordinary fresh spinach just as well, but you’ll probably have to add back less or none of the pasta water. I used goat butter to go with the goat cheese, but that’s because I had it on hand. Feel free to use any butter you like. As usual, measurements are approximate.

short pasta, enough for 2 (about 1/2 lb or 250 g usually works, including leftovers)
olive oil and butter
1-2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 red pepper
1 lb or 1/2 kg savoy spinach
3-5 oz. fresh chèvre
handful of pine nuts
salt and pepper
ground cayenne pepper

  1. Cook the pasta in salted water according to the instructions on the package. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the water. An easy way to do this is to place your pasta colander in a large bowl in the sink and pour your pasta into the colander. You’ll have plenty of leftover pasta water in the bowl beneath the colander. Be sure to move the colander elsewhere so that the pasta stops cooking. Dress the pasta with a little olive oil to keep it from sticking.
  2. In a pot or large pan over a low to medium flame, melt some butter with olive oil. As it heats, coarsely chop the garlic and finely chop the red pepper.
  3. When the oil and butter are hot, add the garlic and stir. When the garlic is almost golden, add the red pepper and stir. Let the pepper cook for a minute or two.
  4. Add the spinach a few handfuls at a time and stir. Let it cook down a bit (say for a minute or two), then add the goat cheese in pieces.
  5. Stir the mixture so that the goat cheese melds with the liquids in the pan. If the sauce is a bit dry, add in a little reserved pasta water. It can be as creamy or thin as you like.
  6. Add the pine nuts. Alternatively, you can toast the pine nuts briefly in another pan, and then add them.
  7. Add some of the pasta back into the pan and mix with sauce. (I served this sauce on top of the pasta, instead of mixing it back in. But I think it might be better mixed in the pan.)
  8. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Taste and correct seasoning.

Serves 2, with a little leftover for lunch the next day.

comfort food

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

As a child, I craved macaroni and cheese from the box. So do most kids, I guess. But I had an unusual palate. Whenever we had Hershey’s miniatures for a special occasion at school, I’d trade any of the milk chocolate flavors just to get all the “Special Dark” bars. I loved the frozen spinach my mother would steam for dinner, flaky, plain croissants, and crusty European bread, a scarcity in the San Francisco peninsula back then. But the first time I tried that bright orange stuff from the box, I was hooked.

In our health-conscious household, there was precious little junk food. My first opportunity to eat the verboten dish arose at my friend’s house, naturally. I was mesmerized by the oozing, creamy sauce that so thoroughly enveloped the pasta elbows as to drench them. I savored the feel of the pasta between my teeth as I chewed it, and the tangy saltiness of the sauce. I enjoyed the accumulating warmth in my belly as I swallowed each bite.

Even more than a hot bowl of mac and cheese, I loved the cold leftovers with their slightly more al dente pasta and the clumps of sauce, the salty tang emboldened by a rest in the fridge. I knew this was gross, probably worse than my younger brother’s revolting habit of dousing ketchup all over our father’s perfectly cooked spaghetti. But I didn’t care. It tasted that good to me.

At home, I made my own version of cold mac and cheese with leftover pasta and cottage cheese. The tiny squeak of the curds between my teeth was almost as satisfying as the weird orange sauce. The combination of salty, creamy curds and dense pasta was delicious in its own right.

Pasta and cottage cheese—or its sophisticated sister, ricotta—is still one of my favorite comfort foods. It’s the kind of dish you make in a cereal bowl for one.

Climb into your favorite upholstered chair and take a bite. Close your eyes and taste it, familiar as a hug. Smile and remember.

pasta with cottage cheese and spinach for one

This a slightly dressier version of the simple dish, including greens and herbs for a nostalgic one-dish dinner for one.

pasta, cooked, any kind
butter, olive oil
2 handfuls fresh spinach, chopped
half a handful parsley leaves, chopped
1 green garlic leaf (only one piece of the long green part), chopped
good cottage cheese (preferably not nonfat)
salt and pepper

  • In the pot you used to cook the pasta, melt some butter with olive oil.
  • Cook the spinach until nearly wilted, then add the parsley and garlic greens. Stir.
  • Add the pasta, then some of the cottage cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Remove from flame and pour into a bowl. Add more cottage cheese and mix to combine.
  • Settle into a comfy spot and eat.

Serves 1

meyer lemon pasta with fennel and artichokes

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

This weekend, I went to the local farmers mark in Berkeley. The poor California farmers have taken quite a beating. Many farmers brought their citrus fruits to market. Stand after stand of forlorn oranges, tangerines, and clementines were mottled with grey grime and lumpy with frostbitten flesh. Some farmers offered samples, others didn’t bother, choosing instead to sell whatever fruit they could in sealed bulk bags. Seeing the sad bins of damaged fruit, and the worried farmers, I felt compelled to buy as many citrus fruit as I imagined we could eat in a week. I managed to find some tasty Washington navel oranges as well as some decent paige mandarins.

The key to finding good citrus is, of course, tasting before you buy. And if no samples are available, ask the farmer if you can sample a piece of fruit. Segments with dry, fibrous bits of flesh have been damaged by frost. Once you’ve found some fruit you like, look for firm fruit without a lot of blemishes or great differences in firmness. Once you’ve selected your fruit, be prepared to pay more than usual to help the farmers make up for their losses.

All citrus woes aside, I was pleased to see green garlic and green onions at the farmers market. These goodies generally appear in the spring, so I was pleasantly surprised to find them at the market in January. The delicate flavor of green garlic is a boon to any dish, particularly when cooked in butter. The piquant freshness of green onion adds a little kick in the pants to most dishes. When I spied the meyer lemon fettuccine at Phoenix Pastificio, my mental image of dinner was vibrant enough to be smell-o-vision: meyer lemon pasta with green garlic and onions, the artichokes and fennel I had at home, the curd I picked up at the Spring Hill Cheese stand, all fragrant and moist with meyer lemon juice and butter.

You could make this dish with regular pasta, but fresh meyer lemon pasta adds another dimension of citrus that complements the other ingredients well. If you don’t have lemon pasta, and don’t feel like making any (who can blame you?), ordinary fresh or dry pasta would work, and spinach pasta might be good as well. If you’re using regular pasta, you might want to zest a lemon and use the zest in the sauce. To make this a more citrusy dish, you could try adding fillets of blood orange, clementine, or half a pomelo. I haven’t tried this variation, but fennel and citrus always make a happy couple.

meyer lemon pasta with fennel artichoke sauce

340 gr fresh meyer lemon pasta, or regular pasta, fresh or dry
butter and olive oil
2 cooked artichoke hearts with stems, cleaned and trimmed
1 fennel, cored
1 stalk of green garlic
1 stalk of green onion
1 small lemon (a meyer lemon if available)
1-2 handfuls of curd, haloumi, or mozzarella
salt and pepper

  • Boil water for the pasta in a large covered pot. If using dry pasta, cook it now. If using fresh pasta, boil the water now and cook the pasta while preparing the sauce.
  • Chop the fennel and artichoke hearts and stems into thick matchsticks. You want to match the size of the vegetables with your pasta. For example, if you’re using fettuccine, make thicker matchsticks. If you’re using angel hair pasta, julienne the vegetables.
  • If you’re using regular pasta, zest the lemon.
  • Slice the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the artichoke pieces to prevent discoloration.
  • Chop the whites of the garlic and onion.
  • Chop the green parts of the green onion stalks into matchsticks.
  • Place a large pan on a medium flame and melt some butter in olive oil.
  • Saute the garlic, then the fennel, then add the artichoke pieces along with the lemon juice.
  • If using fresh pasta, cook the pasta as directed (typically about 3 minutes for fresh pasta).
  • Toss in the onion greens and rip in some fennel fronds. If using regular pasta, add in the lemon zest.
  • Throw in the cheese and turn off the flame.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper, and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon.
  • Toss and correct seasoning. Add a little of the pasta water to the vegetables and toss with the pasta.

Serves 2

mac and cheese, louise

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Ever get an idea that sounds really interesting in theory but turns out to be, well, a bit strange in practice? I like to expand my ideas about foods that complement each other by trying new combinations, often using whatever fresh produce I have in the fridge. That’s what I tried to do when I prepared my version of macaroni and cheese for the Mac and Cheese Off. The idea was intriguing, the results—less so.

A bag of Italian faro (spelt) penne caught my eye while browsing around my local gourmet shop. The pasta was a light brown color, and one of the store employees said it had a nutty flavor. “Hmmm,” I thought. “This could be an interesting base for my mac and cheese.” Think bechamel with nutmeg on a nutty pasta. Sounds good, doesn’t it? I bought a half gallon of whole milk and a tub of terrific French butter. My refrigerator was already stocked with an array of cheeses, so I was all set for the mac and cheese challenge.

I cooked a simple bechamel, and grated copious amounts of cheese: grana padana, raw milk cheddar, petite basque, and manchego. As I prefer creamy stovetop mac and cheese, I poured the bechamel over the pre-cooked pasta, letting simmer. I then added washed and drained baby bok choy leaves and the mix of grated cheeses.

The bok choy, pasta, and cheese sauce were tasty. Jut not all together. I rather like the idea of bok choy in a creamy cheese sauce. But the spelt pasta was all wrong. Spelt pasta is indeed nutty, but also very slightly bitter, like the aftertaste you get when you eat wheat germ. This flavor clashes harshly with the cheese sauce, throwing off the entire dish. Each ingredient sings a different tune and the result is like listening to the Star Spangled Banner, La Marseillaise, and God Save the Queen at the same time. Worse, the pasta was the wrong size, a factor I should have anticipated. Penne is fine for baking in a cheese sauce, but it doesn’t work very well in a creamy cheese sauce on the stove. I had wanted the cheese sauce to envelope the pasta in its creaminess. This doesn’t happen with penne. The cheese sauce sort of stuck to the penne in an eery looking glaze (see photo).

Oh well. I still think bok choy with mac and cheese is an interesting idea. I’ll have to try again, only this time with actual macaroni.

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pasta with creamy bacon chanterelle sauce with bok choy and apples

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

creamy_bacon_apple_chanterelle

This little number was fun to cook, as it’s basically a combination of star ingredients—ingredients that, on their own, would be the crowning glory or surprise element of any given dish. Combining apples with greens is a facile yet tasty trick that offers a sweet-tart crisp foil to the dense iron flavor of greens. Bok choy, with its clean, simple flavor and versatility is one of my favorite greens. And bacon and chanterelles, well they brighten just about anything, don’t they?

I don’t generally enjoy creamy pasta sauces, they tend to be too heavy for my palate. But the smoky bacon and earthy chanterelles call out for a smooth, creamy bechamel. If bacon and chanterelle are Romeo and Juliet, bechamel is Verona, for what good is a well-acted play without context?

creamy bacon chanterelle sauce with bok choy and apples

cooked pasta (I used spaghetti, but a small pasta shape or fettuccine might be fun)
2 c simple bechamel sauce (I used 2 TBS flour to 2 TBS butter)
3 rashers good bacon
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 lb chanterelles, chopped
1 small apple, finely chopped
1 medium bok choy, steamed, leaves separated, chopped
1-2 TBS chopped, fresh parsley
sherry

  • Prepare the bechamel sauce and set aside.
  • In a large pan, fry the bacon until crisp, and set aside. Pour off most of the bacon fat, leaving only a small amount in the pan. You can pour the bacon grease into a heat-proof container and refrigerate it for a later use.
  • Place the pan on medium heat and add the chopped shallot, stirring frequently.
  • Add the chanterelles and stir. Let simmer for a minute or two.
  • Add the apple and stir, then add the chopped bok choy and parsley.
  • Stir in a splash of sherry followed by the bechamel. Pour in a little more sherry to thin the sauce a bit.
  • Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Toss pasta with sauce and serve.

Serves 2-3

smoked duck breast with savoy cabbage and apples

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

This dish seemed to create itself when I brought home the main ingredients. Cabbage and apple were meant to be together, and smoked duck breast is the sultry femme fatale. Who knew that food could have a ménage à trois?

Those little specks of red are not paprika, but rather sumac, a tart spice made of dried sumac berries. Typically used in Middle Eastarn cuisine, sumac lends an exotic flavor to this Hungarian-inspired dish. Its bright sourness is a foil to the sweetness of the cabbage and apples, and the fatty duck.

smoked duck breast with savoy cabbage and apples

bacon fat
1/2 large or 1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced into crescents
1 savoy cabbage, sliced into thin ribbons
1 medium apple, any kind, but preferably a little tart, cored and thinly sliced
1 smoked duck breast, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
garnish: sumac (or lemon juice), and parsley

  • Place a large skillet or wok on a medium to low flame, place some bacon fat into the pan.
  • Sauté the onions in the skillet. Meanwhile, place a smaller cast-iron skillet on a medium high flame. Melt some bacon fat in the skillet.
  • Fry the apple slices in the smaller skillet until golden brown on both sides. You’ll want to fry the apples in batches so as not to crowd the pan.
  • Once the onions have turned golden, add a handful or two of cabbage and stir. Cook for a minute and stir again. Then add another handful or two and repeat. Continue until all the cabbage has been added. You want to incorporate the cabbage with the onions and bacon fat without lowering the overall temperature of the cooking vegetables too much. This will also result in varying textures in the cabbage, some will turn out a little more crunchy, and some a little softer. If the pan starts to get dry, add more bacon fat.
  • As the apples finish cooking, add them to the cabbage onion mixture. Turn off the flame if most of the cabbage has just turned bright green. You want at least some of the cabbage to be somewhat al dente.
  • Fry the sliced duck breast in the skillet in which you fried the apples. Both sides should be slightly carmelized at the edges. Turn off the flame and add duck breast to cabbage mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Serve with buttered broad noodles or fettuccine.

Serves 3-4

pasta with smoky sweet spinach and squash

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

smoky_pasta

This dish was born, as so many are, of ingredients that happened to be lying around. The squash—pumpkin—actually, was lounging around the wooden produce bowl, chatting up the onions and apples. The spinach leaves were chattering in the fridge, complaining of the damp and chilly turn the weather had taken. The bacon, of course, said nothing, as the hog it was made from had long since gone to piggy heaven. A box of spinach spaghetti called out from the cupboard, so as not to be excluded. “I know I’m green, and that’s a little weird for pasta, but you must’ve bought me with something tasty in mind,” he pleaded. True. No reason to discriminate against a noodle for being green. Pasta comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and every one is beautiful in its own way.

As my ingredients had taken the trouble to talk to me, I had no choice but to respond with pots and pans, a cutting board and a knife. What’s that, you think it’s violent and cruel to place a knife at the neck of a talking gourd? It’s not so much an act of violence as it is rearranging all the players for the play. A whole pumpkin is too big and haughty to share the stage with mere spinach leaves. But cut it down to size, say an inch and a half, and a squashy type becomes fast friends with delicately leafy spinach type folk. Bacon may not say much, but its smoky, crunchy presence is felt by all. Even green spaghetti is happier after boiling, its rigid, anxious strands now loose, and playful, and dancing. The grand finale is a pat of butter that bows to the audience as it melts on the hot pasta. “Ah!” sighs spaghetti, contentedly. And so do I, as I take a bite.

pasta with smoky sweet spinach and squash

pasta (enough for 2-3)
4 rashers streaky bacon
butter
1 small leek, split, washed and sliced into half coins (greens removed)
250 gr squash, cubed
3-4 handfuls fresh spinach leaves, washed and drained
allspice, salt, pepper to taste
maple syrup

  • Cook the pasta per the instructions on the box.
  • In a large cast-iron skillet, fry the bacon on low to medium heat. You want the bacon to slowly turn golden brown. Remove from the pan and put on a plate as soon as it has browned on both sides.
  • Drain the bacon fat into a heat-proof container and save for a future use.
  • Melt the butter in the skillet and add the leeks. Stir and cook until the leeks begin to turn golden.
  • Add the squash and stir. Cover the pan for a few minutes so that the squash steams and begins to soften.
  • While the squash cooks, crumble the bacon into small pieces.
  • Uncover the pan after the squash softens.
  • Season with allspice to taste.
  • Add the spinach a handful at a time and stir.
  • Pour in a small amount of maple syrup, about a teaspoon.
  • Add the crumbled bacon and stir to incorporate. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves 2-3

home canning: tomato sauce

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

tomato_sauce_home_canning

This is a jar of tomato sauce I canned last night. It somehow escaped the shelf near the stove and took a scenic photo of itself in the garden. I don’t know how it managed to carry my camera.

Everyone’s been canning tomatoes lately, and I’ve been meaning to can some sauce for a couple of months now. It always seems like such a scary, convoluted, exhausting process such that the thought of home canning is much more attractive than the canning itself. Unlike ordinary cooking, there’s no instant gratification. In fact there’s a danger of no gratification at all. If you don’t seal and process everything just so, you may wind up with several jars of wildly partying bacteria. Let’s hear it for botulism!

But last Saturday I saw the most beautiful early girl tomatoes at the farmer’s market. Again. How could I pass them up? They smelled like summer, and tasted vaguely of honey. They were firm and bright and small. They were perfect. How could I not preserve some of these beauties for winter?

I bought about three pounds, which resulted in a little more than 1.5 pints of thick-ish sauce. I didn’t bother skinning or de-seeding the tomatoes. I like a chunky tomato sauce, and I find that the skin adds a little texture. The tomatoes are very sweet, so a little extra acidity from the seeds doesn’t make much difference.

Here is my recipe for a very simple tomato sauce, which is by no means definitive. My goal was to make a plain, yet flavorful, base sauce to which other ingredients may be added after opening a jar, such as fresh herbs, cheese, or ground meat.

very simple tomato sauce

2-3 TBS butter
5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 lb quartered early girl tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
dried herbs

  • Melt the butter in a medium sized saucepan on a low-medium flame.
  • Add the chopped garlic to the pan and stir.
  • When the butter begins to bubble and the garlic has started to turn golden, add the tomatoes.
  • Simmer and stir.
  • Crumble in dried herbs to taste (I used at least a dozen sprigs of thyme, dropping the leaves into the pot by running the sprigs between my thumb and forefinger).
  • Continue simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove from flame when the sauce has reached the consistency you like.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper.

That’s it. Once you’ve prepared the sauce, you’re halfway done. The canning part isn’t quite as complicated as it seems, especially considering that homemakers have been doing it for hundreds of years. That thought reassured me.

A few tips from a home canning novice:

  • Read about home canning before you try it. Specifically, read about how to can the specific food you’ll be working with. You can get a book from the library, or just do a web search.
  • The National Center for Home Canning is a good resource. Andrea’s Recipe Box is another. (Such detailed instructions! You can tell she’s an instructional designer.)
  • Wash several jars and lids before you begin. You can wash them in the dishwasher, then boil the jars (not the lids) to sterilize them. I don’t have a jar lifter, so I sterilize a set of tongs along with the jars. I then use the tongs to remove the sterilized jars from the canning pot.
  • Prepare more jars than you think you will need, so that you don’t run out.
  • Get a jar of citric acid. According to the National Center for Home Canning, citric acid is useful for canning foods that require a little extra acidity.
  • Read, re-read, and re-re-read the canning instructions before commencing canning. Print out instructions and have them with you in the kitchen for reference. I just noticed a few steps I skipped (oops).
  • If it doesn’t work out, there’s always next year. But you can freeze a small batch just in case.

spinach not pesto with pasta

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

Here’s a recipe for a light summer supper.

spinach, ricotta, and gorgonzola not pesto with pasta
1 lb pasta, cooked and drained, 1-2 cups reserved cooking water
butter
1 bunch fresh spinach, washed, trimmed, and coarsely chopped
1/3 lb fresh ricotta cheese
3-4 TBS crumbled blue cheese (I used Point Reyes)
1 ripe tomato, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
dash of nutmeg

  • Melt a little butter in the pot you used to cook the pasta, and add in the spinach.
  • Cover, and cook on medium heat. If the spinach gets too dry, add a little splash of pasta water.
  • When the spinach has just wilted, turn off the flame. If there is visible liquid in the pot, you can drain it, save it for soup, or use it to moisten the pasta.
  • Crumble in the ricotta cheese.
  • Blitz the spinach and ricotta with a stick blender until it turns into a sauce. Don’t make it too liquidy, stop as soon as the spinach and cheese begin to meld. You might want to experiment a bit with the texture, leaving some spinach leaves unblitzed.
  • Crumble in the blue cheese and stir. Taste. If you like a stronger blue cheese flavor, add more.
  • Toss in the tomatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle in a dash of nutmeg, stir, and taste to correct seasoning.
  • Plate pasta and moisten with a splash of cooking water. Toss pasta with the not pesto and grate parmegiano reggiano cheese on top.

Serves 2-3

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
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