9.24.2011

Pasta Fazool: Now That's Amore


Here’s the rub.  A dairy farmer, vegetarian, hunger activist, nutritionist, and your mother are coming to visit.  So what’s for dinner?  The answer for yours truly: you look to your Italian American roots.  And you make pasta fazool. 

Also known as pasta e fagioli, though I prefer the vernacular I grew up with.  It’s what my mother made.  It’s what Dean Martin sings about. It's when the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool.  

This makes the dish sound fancy.  But ‘scus-a-me, it’s actually peasant dish: with pasta, beans, and tomatoes as the base. (Which should make the vegetarian, hunger activist, and nutritionist quite happy.)  A grate of pecorino over top satisfies the dairy farmer.  And, bada-bing bada-boom, everyone is bene.

It’s cheap and simple.  It’s morally responsible.  But, most importantly, it’s homey enough to satisfy mama. 

And in my family, mama made this often.  It was a staple growing up, especially when dinner was needed asap.  It was always welcomed, particularly when contrasted with the frozen fish sticks and chicken potpies that were supplemented when time was in extremely short supply. (The sight of Gorton the fisherman—in his yellow rain slicker—still sends shivers.)

This recipe is loosely based on my mother’s recipe, which was loosely based on my great grandmother’s recipe.  And so what lingers is an interpretation of a classic dish.  Feel free to adapt it as you see fit.  In the end, it should be—at its simplest— a dish filled with love.  Pasta love. 

Mine features homemade pasta and dried beans.  Your version may feature dried pasta and canned beans.  This does not matter.  What matters is that you put the passion in this dish.  Shoot for a moon-hitting-your-eye-like-a-big-pizza pie kind of love.  That’s pasta fazool.  That’s amore. 

Pasta Fazool

Ingredients:

~2-4 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 small onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt and pepper
28 oz can diced tomatoes
1 tsp red chili flakes
1 cup cooked fresh homemade linguine (or 2 oz dry linguine)
~1 cup fresh basil leaves (very loosely packed), gently torn
 2 cups cooked dried white beans (cannellini) or cranberry beans (borlotti) (or 2 cups canned)
Pecorino cheese, optional

Instructions:

Heat 1-2 tbsp olive oil in a large saute pan on medium heat.  Add onion, stir to coat in olive oil; cook until it begins to soften, about 3-4 minutes.  Add minced garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook about 2 minutes more until garlic has very slightly browned and onions are slightly translucent.  Add tomatoes, red pepper flakes, a little more salt and pepper, and stir to combine; continue to cook on medium heat.

Meanwhile, boil the water for the pasta (unless you have some in reserve that you have already cooked).  Salt the pasta water and add the pasta once the water reaches a rolling boil.  Meanwhile, add half the basil to the tomato mixture.  Continue to cook the tomato mixture, turning down the heat if the sauce starts to spatter.  

Once the pasta is done, strain out the water (you may want to reserve 1/2 cup pasta water to add back to the sauce to help the pasta cling).  Add the beans, cooked pasta, and the rest of the basil to the saucepan with the tomato sauce and toss to combine.  Drizzle ~1 tbsp over the mixture and gently stir.  Taste and adjust for seasoning, if needed.  Top with sprinkle of pecorino cheese, if desired.

Makes ~6 cups

Notes:
-This recipe is super easy, makes great leftovers, and can be made in fewer than 30 minutes if you have all your ingredients ready to go. From college student to grandma, this dish can work wonders.

-My mom traditionally used white beans, however cranberry beans can occasionally be found at the farmers' markets here in Boston.  If this is the case, you can use fresh beans instead of dried.  (Unfortunately, fresh cranberry beans were nowhere to be found at the time of this recipe.)  While dried beans will take ~1 hour to cook after they've been soaked overnight, fresh beans take much less time after you shell them.  You can, of course, bypass all of this and simply get out your can opener.

-For my money, Muir Glen has the best canned tomatoes, but any dice will do you.

-The coup de grĂ¢ce for the nutritionist: the vitamin C content of the tomatoes also makes the iron from the beans more easily absorbed.



9.15.2011

The Power of Goat Cheese Stuffed Squash Blossoms

There is nothing rational regarding what I’m about to say.  But then again, there is nothing inherently rational about deep-frying the flower from a squash plant, now is there?  In fact, it’s probably best to disengage the thinking mind altogether on this one. 

Too ephemeral for any outside drama or noisy to-do lists, squash blossoms are best cooked the day they are picked.  So they force you to live in the moment.  Depending on your level of commitment, you may even find yourself thinking in hour long squash blossom increments.

And this makes them beyond beautiful.  If you struggle with living in the past or in the future, they can act like an instant, edible self-help book.  You know the kind.  The kind that urges you to behave in the present.  The kind with names like "The Power of Now" and “You Can Heal Your Life.”

So stop worrying about your ticking biological clock.  Or your irritable bowel syndrome.  Or what it means when someone calls you an alpha female.  Because the only thing that matters when in the presence of squash blossoms is that these little guys don’t wilt and die on you.  (That I’m recommending to deep-fry them likely helps with this in-the-moment living, too.) 

So when I happened upon them last weekend at the Siena Farms stand at the Copley farmers’ market, I scooped up every. last. one.  And then immediately started to panic.  My plans for the night had just changed. This may seem a tad extreme from a rational perspective, but I’d been on the hunt for squash blossoms since 2008: which was the last time I found them.  I did not have a squash blossom contingency plan in place.

Did I have canola oil at home?  (I did not.)  Did the Crystal Brook Farm goat cheese guy at the market have plain goat cheese left?  (He did not.)  So I was convinced by “goat cheese guy” to buy a version with specks of ginger in it and then hit Savenor’s on the way home for some grapeseed oil.  And—after some deep breathing—I was all the better for it. 

Which got me thinking.  I believe squash blossoms are made for those breezy, northern California Alice Waters types that I imagine stroll through farmers’ markets with big wicker baskets sniffing peaches.  They are not inherently made for neurotic North Easterners that scurry to the farmers’ market on their lunch breaks, ruminating about what to make for dinner and if they still have enough eggs left to procreate.

I suppose my greater point here: everyone benefits from the blossom.  And I imagine if they are fried, and come out of hot oil heading straight for your plate, that this only improves things.  Yes, this likely quiets the noise immediately.  Especially with the melty cheese involved.  So perhaps—on second thought—deep fried squash blossoms are made especially for us Woody Allen types.  And while we are too pragmatic (and cynical?) to let a squash blossom heal our lives, having some every now and then probably wouldn’t hurt. 



Goat Cheese Stuffed Fried Squash Blossoms

Ingredients:

Grapeseed or canola oil
A bubbly beverage, e.g. sparkling water, sparkling wine, beer (chilled)
Equal parts flour and rice flour 
Salt and pepper
Squash blossoms
Goat cheese, or cheese of your preference

Instructions:

Heat oil in a small saucepan on medium to medium-high heat; you'll want enough oil to sit 1-2 inches deep in the saucepan.  Meanwhile, place the sparkling beverage of your choice in a glass filled with ice cubes to chill the liquid further.  (This will ultimately help with the crispiness.) Then, combine flour and rice flour in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper. After this, add enough chilled liquid to the flour mixture (minus the ice cubes) until the batter becomes about the consistency of a crepe batter (more liquidy than a pancake batter). 

Remove the stamen from the inside of the squash blossom and stuff each blossom with 1/2-1 tsp goat cheese, depending on the size of the blossom.  

When the oil reaches about 350-375 degrees (or sizzles violently if you place part of a squash blossom in it) it is ready.  Quickly dip each squash blossom into the batter, shake off excess batter, and then place in the hot oil.  Cook until the blossom is golden brown, about 1 minute and then season with salt and dry on a paper towel.

Notes:
-The amount of ingredients needed for this recipe depends entirely on the amount of blossom(s) you are able to get your hands on.  It's also 100% low maintenance, so go with your gut and don't be afraid.

-If you don't have rice flour you can substitute cornstarch. 

-Grapeseed or canola oil are good to use because they are both neutral-tasting and let the flavor of the squash blossoms shine through.  They also have fairly high smoke points, which means your kitchen won't be filled with smoke at the end of this little food exercise.

9.09.2011

The Memory of Maple Roasted Butternut Squash Barley Salad



Let me just say that I never thought barley + butternut squash could incite so much passion.  I should have known better.  I first made this salad for my sister’s bridal shower.  Her wedding was this past weekend and—even weeks later—it still had people talking.  I'd even go so far as to say that there was more salad-related chatter than the typical love life inquiry chitchat.  

Which was fine by me.  Talking about barley is much less awkward.  Especially when you’re in a bridesmaid dress with Frank Sinatra playing in the background.

Coincidentally, preparing this recipe requires a certain romancing of the ingredients.  It’s not rocket science, but you have to pay attention to the details.  And in the end, it’s the details that make the salad worth eating. 

So, dear barley salad, there are many things that will keep me loving you and, with your permission, may I list a few?  The way you wear your hat.  The way you sip your tea ….  Errr, I probably shouldn’t anthropomorphize the barley too much, should I?  I suppose it's too late.

This is truly a salad to love.  The butternut squash is peeled, chopped into tiny cubes, and tossed in oil and herbs.   The onions get bathed in balsamic.  Then these very special jewel-toned vegetables marry with the barley.  

So here it is, after much request: the ingredients and instructions that will—with any luck—recreate a gorgeous salad.  As for the ingredients and instructions for a gorgeous marriage?  Be forewarned, looks fade.  So you had better have backup.  As for the salad?  The taste improves the longer it sits.  With any luck, the leftovers for both will linger.  

But no matter what: the barley was good, and pretty, and the memory of all that, no, they can’t take that away from me.

Maple Roasted Butternut Squash Barley Salad


Ingredients

1 pound barley, uncooked
2 butternut squashes, peeled and chopped into 1/2" cubes
6 sage leaves, minced
3 sprigs rosemary, minced
~ 1 cup olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper
Juice of 3 lemons, divided (zest of one lemon reserved)
Juice of 3 tangerines, divided (zest of one tangerine reserved)
~6 tbsp maple syrup, divided
3 red onions, peeled and sliced thinly
2-4 tbsp balsamic vinegar (enough to coat red onions)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Prepare barley on stovetop according to package directions.  While barley is cooking, place butternut squash cubes on baking sheet and toss with the herbs and enough olive oil so that the cubes glisten and will not stick to the pan (~4 tbsp).  Season liberally with salt and pepper and place into preheated oven.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing by combining the juice of 2 lemons, 2 tangerines, zest of 1 lemon and 1 tangerine, at least 1/2 cup olive oil, a quick gulg (a tablespoon or so) of maple syrup, and salt and pepper to taste.  (At this point you may need to add additional acidity, so add more citrus juice or additional maple syrup and olive oil for sweetness and body, respectively, as needed per your preference.)    Set dressing aside until the barley is thoroughly cooked with cooking water drained.  Toss 1/2 of the dressing with hot barley in a large bowl and set aside.

Then check on the butternut squash and toss it with ~1/4 cup maple syrup and juice from the remaining lemon and tangerine and place back in oven and continue to cook it until squash is fork tender and caramelized.  Meanwhile, place red onions on another baking sheet and toss with balsamic vinegar and additional olive oil; once again, until well coated.  Season with salt and pepper and roast in oven until they are caramelized and shriveled.  (They will roast fairly quickly, so keep an eye on them.)

Once the squash and onions are done, mix them with the barley; then toss everything with the remaining dressing.  Taste and adjust for additional salt and pepper as needed.

Makes about 10 cups 

Notes:
-Since this recipe was me, in the kitchen, in rare form: most of the measurements are approximates.  

9.01.2011

Watermelon Cocktails and the Last Flash of Summer

Summer, it’s slipping away from us.  It’s going out with the muggy evenings and thunderstorms.  Except it's quietly creeping, instead of flashing and booming away into the distance. 

But just like that, it will be gone.  If I had my way, I’d be sitting in a creaky rocking chair on an old wooden porch watching the thunderbolts in the distance and listening to Lana Del Rey, with summer disintegrating around me. 

And sipping this cocktail.  This watermelon number is a doozy. The perfect base for a lazy evening.  It took kindly to white tequila and a salted glass rim last week. But it would work equally with Boston-based Bully Boy's white whiskey, which has a sweet, very slight smokiness to it. 

As for Lana?  Her song “Videogames” is the quintessential late summer melody.  It’s sultry.  Heady.  You want it to last a little bit longer.  Sipping a strong watermelon drink and listening to her just lends itself to romancing about summer memories.

Singing in the old bars. Swinging with the old stars.  Living for the fame.  Kissing in the blue dark. Playing pool and wild darts.  Video games.

Ohhh, she’s good.  Something about her haunting lyrics paired with this drink makes saying goodbye to summer a little easier.

So so long sun dresses.  And tan lines.  Carefree evenings.  And leaving the back door open. I’m not sure if the watermelon or the whiskey will run out first. But I can’t think of a better way for it to go.

Watermelon Cocktail

Ingredients:

1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1 small watermelon (or about 6 cups cut in 1" chunks)
2-3 limes, freshly squeezed
1.5-1.75 cups of liquor (white tequila, bourbon, etc.)

Instructions:

Combine 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 cup water to make a simple syrup in a saucepan.  Heat sugar water on medium heat until sugar dissolves completely.  Set aside.

Blend watermelon with the juice of two limes in a food processor or blender; add simple syrup. (Depending on the size of your processor you may have to do this in two batches.)  Taste and add the juice of another lime depending on preference.  Add booze.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add watermelon mixture.  Shake mixture and strain into glasses with additional ice cubes.  

Makes about 6 cocktails 

Notes:
-I love margaritas with salt.  If you'd like to salt the rim of your glass, rub a wedge of lime around the outer lip of your glass and then dip the glass upside down into a plate containing kosher salt.  You could also just use water, simply dip you glass in a small plate of water and then salt.

-If you are making margaritas, use white tequila.  It provides a cleaner flavor.  ("They" also say it provides less of a hangover.)  (Each drink has about 2 ounces of liquor in it.)

-This mixture can be frozen, with or without booze, until it is needed.  Defrost the night before you plan to use it in your fridge.  (Note that it will not freeze completely if there is alcohol in it.)

-Lana Del Rey's song Video Games will be released on October 9th.  You can also listen to it here.  I first heard her from The Dinner Party Download.  All good stuff.