Monday, June 23, 2014

Pasta alla Carbonara

One of the things I loved most about living in a large house with four other women was the different cooking backgrounds and skills each one of us brought to the table (pun intended).  This was years ago in Austin, and we did not have the ready access to information that we have today.  But we all worked at the Public Library, so we at least had access to a vast physical database of information.  The kitchen was large enough to house two refrigerators (and a washing machine!), so space was not an issue and our schedules were different enough that we were each able to do our thing mealwise without getting in anyone's way.

We mostly cooked and ate for ourselves during the week, but on weekends we would usually cook and eat together, along with any friends who happened to be around.  And there were always friends hanging around, as we had four acres of land, a covered basketball court, a swimming pool, and a trampoline available to us.  (Yes, that was one sweet deal.)

And one of the meals that a housemate cooked for us was Spaghetti alla Carbanara.  We all watched with horror as she dumped the cooked pasta into a bowl full of raw eggs, stirred it all together, and then expected us to actually eat it!  But once plated it did not look at all disgusting, and smelled really good, so we stuck our forks into it and gave it a taste.

And oh my gosh was it delicious!  Creamy and smoky and luscious.  I never forgot that dish, but I never made it myself.  Now that I have been making my own pasta I am constantly on the lookout for new and different things to do with it.  I didn't have much in the house in the way of vegetables (don't pretend that's never happened to you) and I needed a quick dinner.  I did have some bacon in the freezer and I always have Parmagiana Reggiano and eggs on hand, so I decided it was time I tried to recreate the dish I had enjoyed so many years ago.

And it was just as good as I remembered it.  Better, in fact, because the bacon was applewood smoked, the pasta was freshly made, the black pepper was freshly grated, and the cheese did not come out of a can.  In a word, perfection.

It might not look all that great in the picture.  I try to make my photos look pretty, but I can't always manage it.  And to be honest, it's not a high priority for me.  I know that we eat with our eyes, but I'm more interested in how my food tastes than how it looks.  If I had had parsley (or any fresh herbs for that matter), I would have garnished and it would have looked that much better.  And I guess it would have tasted better too, so if you plant to make this, especially for company, do be sure to get some while you are shopping for the rest of the ingredients.  But I can assure you I was not at all mourning its absence while I was eating it.

And I just noticed this - if you look closely at the photo you will see little bits of yellow in the mix.  I forgot that I had a little bit of yellow pepper that I diced and cooked up with the bacon.  It's not traditional, but it tasted good and kept me from having to throw away food.

Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes
4 servings

4 oz bacon diced
12 oz fresh tagliatelle, linguini, or papardelle
2 eggs
2 Tbsp water
1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, plus extra for garnish
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Heat a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Combine the eggs and water in a small bowl and beat together with a fork, then set aside.

Meanwhile, cook the bacon over medium high heat in a skillet until crisp. Do not remove the bacon from the fat, but remove all but a tablespoon of the drippings.

When the water starts to boil add a generous amount salt and then the pasta. Cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and then return it to the pot. Immediately add the bacon with its drippings and the egg to the pasta while it is still hot and toss well, until the pasta is completely covered with the egg and cheese.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with more cheese and the parsley.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Pasta with Asparagus and Zucchini

This is a lovely little dish I like to trot out when asparagus and zucchini are in season.  It is especially good with fresh pasta, although dried will do the job if that is all you have available.

This recipe falls under my ongoing attempts to practice the theory that "less is more."  When the ingredients are fresh, there's no need for excess herbage and seasoning.  All you really need to do is find a simple way to highlight the main ingredients.  This recipe does exactly that and is quick and easy.  You can have dinner on the table in about half an hour.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

4 servings

1 lb fresh long pasta
1 batch of asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup sauvignon blanc or other white wine
salt and pepper to taste
freshly grated parmesan cheese
chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Place a large pot of water on the stove over high heat and bring to a boil.  When it is boiling, add salt and the asparagus and zucchini and cook them for 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove them from the water and plunge them immediately into cold water.  Drain and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and saute it for a few minutes, until translucent.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add the wine and let it cook down for a minute.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and let it cook for about 2 to 3 minutes if using fresh (about a minute less than the designated cooking time - if using dried pasta adjust cooking time accordingly).

Add the asparagus and zucchini to the onions and cook until heated through.  When the pasta is done, reserve about a cup of the pasta water and drain, then add the pasta to the asparagus and zucchini in the skillet.  Cook for 2 more minutes, mixing everything together and adding pasta water as necessary.

Remove from the heat.  Serve immediately garnished with  parsley and cheese.


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Monday, June 09, 2014

Broccoli and Red Onion Pizza Bianca

It's been a while since I've made pizza so I decided to go for it over the weekend.  I used this trusty recipe that has never failed me.  I usually mix it up the day before I plan to make the pizza so I can give it a slow rise over night in the refrigerator to develop the flavor but it was a spur-of-the-moment decision made in the morning.  So I mixed up the dough right away and put it in the refrigerator to do its thing during the day.

My original intention was to make my usual red sauce pizza, but I had bought quite a bit of broccoli a few days earlier that needed to be used and I was in the mood for a more vegetable-focused pie and I'm not a big fan of broccoli and tomato sauce.  There's nothing wrong with it, I suppose, but when I think broccoli I think white sauce.

The only problem with that is that I don't use much regular milk these days so I couldn't make a traditional bechamel sauce.  But I do seem to always have buttermilk on hand, so I wondered if that would work.

And it did work.  The buttermilk gave the sauce a lovely little tang that married well with the broccoli and red onion.  I will definitely do this again.

 I was feeling a bit lazy so I decided to make one big pizza instead of two smaller ones.  I sprinkled some corn flour over my all-purpose half-sheet baking pan and spread the dough evenly over it.  Because the broccoli is on the heavy side, I baked the crust for five minutes before spreading the sauce over it.  I followed the sauce with grated mozzarella cheese, then spread the broccoli and red onion over that.  I seasoned it with salt and pepper, then topped it with grated parmesan cheese and sprinkled it with fresh oregano and thyme.  Then I baked it for another 20 minutes or so.

It was quite good.  It would have been crisper if I had left it in the oven for another few minutes, but I was afraid of burning it.  As it was, I would happily serve it to a crowd.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

1 batch Perfect Pizza Crust*
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup buttermilk
12 oz fresh broccoli spears, steamed for 5 minutes, or frozen
broccoli spears, thawed
cornmeal (approximately 1 Tbsp)
8 ounces (approximately 2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 Tbsp fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dried)
1 tbsp fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)

*Dough can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.

Prepare pizza dough and let rise. While the dough is rising, make the buttermilk bechamel sauce.
In a medium-size saucepan melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for a few minutes to cook out the rawness of the flour but not long enough for it to brown. Add the buttermilk, whisking constantly to keep it from lumping until it has been fully incorporated into the flour and butter paste. As soon as the mixture starts to bubble, lower the heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Move a rack to the bottom slot of the oven and preheat the oven to 450 deg. F. Sprinkle cornmeal around the bottom of a pizza dish. Using your hands, spread the dough around the dish, allowing for a slightly raised edge. Bake the naked crust for five minutes.
Spread the bechamel over the dough, then the shredded Mozzarella cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then layer the broccoli and red onion over the cheese. Sprinkle the grated Parmigiano Regganio and fresh herbs over the top. Place the pizza on the bottom rack and cook 20 to 25 more minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and the crust is golden brown.


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Monday, June 02, 2014

Carrot Ginger Soup with Cracked Black Pepper

I recently joined a Chicago Meet-up Group called Spiced-Up that meets once a month for a BYOB restaurant meal and has a monthly pot-luck involving a specific spice.  I joined too late for the April clove potluck (drat the luck), but was in time for a lovely meal at Cookies and Carnitas and the May potluck, the theme of which was peppercorns.

I have mentioned before that pepper was not much in evidence in our house when I was a child.  My mother did not care for it.  All of our salt and pepper shakers were filled with salt, and whenever we came across pepper in a recipe we were making we simply ignored it.  My father was a closet pepper eater, though.  There was always a jar of coarsely ground black pepper in the spice cupboard that he would use whenever he thought he could get away with it, usually when he cooked meat.  So I was at least familiar with the taste even if I was not a particular fan.

Over time I came to appreciate its flavor on certain foods, mainly eggs, but I never noticed it's absence from any dish.  In the past ten years or so, however, I have gotten into the habit of using it more often than not when I cook.

After my first internal groan of dismay when I saw that the theme for my first potluck with this group was peppercorns, I chose to take the high road and see it as an opportunity to find a new way to appreciate it.  I was reminded of a caprese salad I had ordered years ago at Topo Gigio in Old Town.  The tomatoes were summer ripe, the mozzarella was soft and luscious, and the basil was fresh and flavorful.  But of all things it was the pepper that stood out to me.  To this day I don't know what kind it was - I don't think it was Tellicherry but I could be wrong about that.  For sure it tasted like pepper, but it had an extra special sharp - peppery - bite that I had never before encountered.  It was the only time that I can ever remember where I actually noticed the pepper as a separate, essential ingredient, and I decided it was no accident that it had occurred with such a simple dish.

That memory inspired me to look for another simple dish that might benefit from the addition of that peppery kick.  And it didn't take long for me to come up with one.  As soon as I had the thought of adding coarsely ground black pepper to curried ginger carrot soup I knew it would work.

And it did.  On its own the soup is quite good; good enough that it is something I make regularly.  But the addition of the pepper causes the carrots to pop into the foreground while the rest of the spices combine to balance the rest of the flavors.  It was well received at the pot-luck and would make a great starter for a dinner party, but is awfully good for lunch with a grilled cheese sandwich.

If you do not have all of the spices readily available, you can just use a tablespoon of curry powder, or to taste.  Just be careful not to overdo it, or the curry spices will overpower the pepper.  And that would be a real shame.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes
6-8 Servings

2 lb carrots, trimmed peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
2 Tbsp chopped garlic
2 Tbsp chopped ginger
2 large shallots, chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp curry powder
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
kosher salt to taste
3/4 cup coconut milk
1 Tbsp coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste, plus more for garnish

Bring an inch of water to a boil over medium-high heat in a 3-quart saucepan. Add a teaspoon of salt and the carrots and cook for about 10 minutes, until tender. Drain, reserving liquid; set both aside.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large pot. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent. Add the spices and cook until fragrant but not burned, about 1 minute.

Add the carrots and stir until they are coated with the spices. Add enough broth to cover the carrots. Cover, lower the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

Using a stick blender or a regular blender, puree the soup. If using a regular blender, return the soup to the pot and place over low heat. Add the rest of the stock. If more liquid is needed, use the reserved liquid from cooking the carrots.

Add the coconut milk and black pepper and season to taste with the salt. Serve hot, garnished with yogurt and more black pepper.


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