Tag Archives: Pasta

Not Quite Breakfast for Not Quite Dinner

Painted in Waterlogue

There was a package of smoked salmon in the fridge. I guess that’s not tremendously unusual; it’s the sort of thing we have from time, not quite a staple and not quite a splurge. She bought it, I guess, when her mom came to visit, and they hadn’t eaten it. I didn’t have a lot of time to cook, so a protein I didn’t have to defrost had pretty strong appeal. What did not appeal, however, was serving it for breakfast with bagels and cream cheese. I like the idea of bagels and cream cheese and smoked salmon, but smoked fish is just too fishy for me in the morning.

But it was 4 in the afternoon, I had to leave for rehearsal shortly, and breakfast had been a long time ago.

While I cooked some linguine, I flaked the salmon into a bowl. I chopped a bunch of cilantro and a bunch of dill and added them. I chopped some capers and added them. Thinking I might be on the verge of too-salty, I saw some appealing-looking grape tomatoes on the counter; I halved and added them to the bowl.I very lightly steamed a few spears of asparagus, sliced them into quarter-inch rounds, and added them, too. We had cream cheese, but I left it in the fridge in favor of some mozzarella I roughly cubed.  I made a quick vinaigrette from a teaspoon of dijon mustard, a bit of the caper brine, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil, gave the bowl a generous grind of black pepper, and tossed everything to coat. When the noodles reached al dente, I scooped them into the bowl; some of their starchy cooking water came along, as intended. I tossed the pasta with its fishy-cheesy-herby condiment–too chunky to call it “sauce,” I think.

The heat of the noodles softened the cheese and tomatoes and warmed the salmon and herbs without cooking them. But the dressing wasn’t so cold as to turn the pasta into a salad. It was like a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon, but in a bowl. Fresh, bright herbs; sweet tomatoes; soft, creamy cheese; briny, hearty, yet delicate fish; this dish had a little of everything.

I called down to the office. “Dinner is served,” I said. “Or lunch, or whatever this is.”

Whatever it was, we enjoyed it a lot.

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The Nowhere Near Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge

Painted in Waterlogue

“Let’s just have green beans,” she said.

She didn’t mean we should forego the turkey, skip the stuffing, or pass on the pumpkin pie. And she surely didn’t mean there would be no mashed potatoes.

I had been asking about green bean casserole, which is a pretty traditional Thanksgiving side dish around here. But considering the butternut squash soup, the giblet gravy, and the aforementioned and very buttery mashed potatoes, I agreed the there would be enough creamy things on the menu. Steamed beans with salt and pepper and a little lemon zest would provide a nice, crisp balance. Nobody missed the casserole at Thanksgiving dinner, and everybody left the table happily full.

But, on Sunday night, while watching a cooking game show that included a “remake this side dish” challenge, I thought about green beans. (I’d bought more vegetables than we’d needed to cook for the seven of us, so there were some in the fridge that ought to be cooked soon.) When we arrived home on Monday after long days at the offices and long, rainy commutes, it seemed time for something warm and comforting—and not just the last of the reheated Thanksgiving leftovers. One of my students today had said, “You know, give me green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, and I’m good for Thanksgiving.”  So, while she folded some laundry, I thought: Game on. Remake Green Bean Casserole as an entree using only things we have in the fridge or pantry.

Green Bean Tortellini

1/2 package spinach tortellini
2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tbsp giblet gravy
2 tbsp cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp grated parmesan cheese
2 strips crisp bacon, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil

Do the slicing and chopping. Set a pot of water to boil. If you have been sitting at a desk or piano, or in traffic, all day long, go into the living room and do a 7 Minute Workout. If your day has been sufficiently active already, slice and dice while waiting for the water to boil. Warm pasta bowls in the oven.

Cook tortellini according to package directions. Steam the green beans over the water in the pasta pot.
Put a glug of oil in a skillet, get it good and hot, and sauté the onions, then the mushrooms. Add the Worcestershire sauce and toss.
Drain the tortellini and put it in the oven to keep warm; it won’t be long now.
Add the green beans to the drained pasta.
Add the cream and gravy to the mushrooms and onions; stir to combine and heat through.
Pour the mushroom/onion sort-of-sauce over the pasta and beans; toss to combine.
Divide into the warmed bowls. Sprinkle crumbled bacon and cheese on top.

Serves 2, plus one lucky lunch-eater the next day. (Or increase all the quantities and serve 2 for lunch, or 4 for dinner.)

 

The idea here is for a dish that is equal parts veg and pasta. The result is not soupy. The beans are still crisp. The bacon is totally optional, but I’d made it and forgot to add it to the Brussels sprouts on Thanksgiving day, so its salty crunch seemed like a wise addition. It’s not Thanksgiving leftovers, it’s something entirely different. And I’ll do it again.

Dinner in 30 minutes, plus a little exercise, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a long day of happy-but-challenging work.  Not bad for Monday.

 

 

How To Make The Most Delicious Summer Pasta

I don’t have a photo of the finished plate, because I do not have that much willpower.

I love watching food game shows; when people who have staked their reputation on cooking well are challenged to up their game in a public setting, they layer ingredients and flavors and techniques in ways I can’t even imagine. One of the specific things I’ve noticed lately is the tendency to layer sauces: one to dress the bottom of the plate, a second atop the entrée, and a third on the accompaniment. And that new way of thinking inspired the most amazing pasta dish I’ve eaten this year.

First, grill some vegetables.

Sift your CSA share or home garden harvest and pull out three summer onions, a head of new garlic, and six gorgeous peppers. Wrap the garlic in a foil packet, and toss all of the veggies onto the grill. Turn as needed, and when the peppers are cooked through and the onions have some char marks, remove them all to a bowl and head inside to your range. (Unless you have a fabulous outdoor cooktop, in which case you can just move along your gorgeous outdoor kitchen and keep working. But don’t tell me; I’m working to curb my envy.)

Second, make the pasta and a lemon butter sauce.

Throw the fettuccine in a pot of salted boiling water, and toss four tablespoons of butter into a skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts, add a peeled, whole clove of garlic, three gluts of chicken stock or white wine, and the zest and juice of a large, ripe lemon. Simmer, whisking regularly, for 7 to 10 minutes until the sauce thickens, beautifully emulsified and fragrant. Discard the garlic, then toss your drained pasta into the sauce, turning it to coat. Your pasta will be glossy and beautiful, and you will want to dive into it with your bare hands. Resist temptation!

Turn those grilled vegetables into a sauce of their very own.

Cut away the blackened edges of garlic, and squeeze four of the paste-consistency garlic cloves into another skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil. Peel and seed two fist-sized peppers, and dice them and one of the onions, and add them to the skillet. Roughly chop three beautifully ripe tomatoes into the skillet; season liberally with salt, pepper, and herbs like basil, oregano, and marjoram. Cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, just until the vegetable juices come together and bubble.

Prepare your plates.

Pull warm plates from your oven, and divide the lemony fettuccine between them. Spoon the vegetable sauce over the top liberally – you simply can’t be too heavy handed. If you can’t live without cheese on your pasta add a little freshly grated Parmesan – but keep it light so you don’t miss out on the silky texture of the buttered pasta.

Enjoy.

Sit at the table with your napkin readily at hand, and twirl the lemon-butter-soaked pasta through the glorious vegetables. Every bite tastes like a languid summer afternoon, bursting with the richness of fresh-from-the garden veggies and the velvety, sunshine-brightness of lemon.

Reserve the remaining grilled vegetables so you can make this again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after. Sun-warmed tomatoes were made for this!

To Win the Game, First Boil Water

“What about Carbonara?” she asked, as we rode the train home last Monday evening.

“Carbonara,” I said, thinking that was beyond my reach; it would be 10 pm before we got home.

“We have bacon and eggs and cheese and pasta.”

Challenge accepted. It would certainly keep us from going to the drive-through window, or eating a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Neither of those is necessarily terrible, but we could do better.

I’m sure the idea arose because we’d watched an episode of a cooking game show the night before. Just for fun, the host challenged one of the judges to join the competition. The meal he prepared didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but he started halfway into the cooking period and prepared a meal of spaghetti carbonara in less than 15 minutes. (Because it was also a “budget” challenge, the judge used bacon rather than the traditional pancetta.)

“How did he do that so fast?” she asked. “Did they stop the clock to let him boil the water?”

I’m pretty sure, I said, that they let all the contestants have a pot of boiling water all the time. In fact, although I can’t remember where, I’d read that every cook should set a pot of water to boil as soon as walking in the door, even if you don’t know what you’re planning to cook. It could be used for to cook pasta, potatoes, or rice; or turn into the basis for a simple soup; or a steamer basket could go over it for vegetables. I don’t always do this, but it does seem like a good idea.

“Okay,” I said, “but you can’t hold me to 15 minutes since I don’t already have boiling water.”

That seemed fair to her.

Carbonara Against the Clock.

First things first. Come in the door. Put down your bag and go straight to the stove. Put on a pot of water to boil. Feed the cat.

Now take off your coat. Hey, every second counts.

Set a skillet on medium heat.

Pull a package of bacon from the freezer; and, from the fridge, a wedge of parmesan and a carton of eggs.

Green peas are not to be included, the judge pointedly said. Heck with him. Get peas if you want them. We didn’t have any peas. I grabbed some asparagus.

Turn on the oven to low, add a couple of bowls. No cold plates for hot food.

Dice a few strips of bacon and set them in the skillet to render, stirring occasionally so nothing burns. (If the bacon is frozen, so much the better: it dices neatly and cooks slower.)

Trim the asparagus (if using) and cut it into half-inch long pieces.

Grate the cheese until you have about half a cup.

When the water is boiling, in goes a half-box of spaghetti. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t clump.

When the bacon is cooked, remove it with a slotted spoon to one of the warming bowls. If Pour off the bacon fat, reserving it for another day! Leave a little fat in the skillet and sauté the if-using asparagus in it.

Cracked four eggs into a big bowl and whisk them. Stirred in most of the grated cheese and a generous amount of pepper.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, add it to the eggs-and-cheese bowl, and stir vigorously. This way, the hot pasta cooks the eggs gently—rather than pouring the eggs into the pasta pot, where they’d seize up instantly. Add the bacon and completely-non-traditional asparagus, stirred a little more to combine. Divide into the warmed bowls, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Serves two, who most decidedly did not have to go to the drive-through; if there are no leftovers, I will certainly not judge.

35 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down to eat.

Cooking game shows are fun to watch, though they don’t really have the play-along factor of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune—or, one that is very close to my heart, The $100,000 Pyramid. There’s no way to “get the answer” before the contestants do, and, of course, there’s no way for the home audience to “judge” the food the contestants prepare, other than by saying, “That looks good,” or “I wouldn’t eat that.”

Or—and this is particularly important for an improvisational cook like me—as a reminder of how to cook within limitations.

Whatever the challenge, first, boil some water.

Tomato S…omething

Painted in Waterlogue

“We should make pulled pork,” she said. “There’s all that pork shoulder in the freezer.  And you should make favorite slaw from that cabbage.”

Ah. She wasn’t really jonesing for pulled pork; it was a ploy to use a young cabbage that had arrived in our CSA box. Still, I didn’t disagree. I never disagree with a request for pulled pork. But it was opening weekend for my new musical—which came directly on the heels of production week for my othernew musical—so we didn’t make the time to make the pork. I’d do it early on a weekday, and give it all day to sit in the slow cooker.

Except, well, there wasn’t all that pork shoulder in the freezer. Or any pork shoulder. There was a package of ground pork; there were several packages of ground beef, and some steaks; there were chicken breasts—she’s been doing most of the grocery shopping lately, and has been stocking up when things are on sale. That’s why I also found 10 pounds of butter, and quite a bit of ice cream. I’m not complaining about any of this; I’m just reporting what I found. Six quarts of really good stock, and bags of bones, shrimp shells, and vegetable clippings from which we’ll make more one day. And, although there was a package of bacon, too, nothing in the freezer was pork shoulder.

I also took from the freezer an unfortunately unmarked container of something red. I don’t know if its label fell off or it had never been labeled, but after it thawed overnight in the fridge and I tasted it, I still wasn’t quite sure if it was tomato soup or tomato sauce. (If the former, it had been made without cream; if the latter, without meat.) It was going to be the basis for dinner, but I wasn’t sure whether to make grilled cheese sandwiches or pasta.

Then the CSA delivery came, bearing purple carrots, green peppers, red onions, and some tender young eggplants. I chopped a big pile of each and sweated them in a big skillet, and set a pot of water to boil.  When the vegetables were softened, I poured in the tomato-something and let it simmer gently. There was some leftover sausage in the fridge, so I chopped and added it, along with a hunk of parmesan rind. If the red stuff had once been tomato soup, it would be soup no longer.

Dinner was wonderful. We haven’t had a bowl of pasta-with-sauce in quite a while. It felt like a treat.

Planning is good. Preparing is good. Stocking-up is great. Organizing the freezer once in a while is essential. Proper labeling is a fine and glorious thing. And figuring out what to do with a mysterious package—well, it might be better if there weren’t such mysteries, but the figuring-out was fun.

It’s Thursday, so the grocery store fliers will be in today’s mail. I’ve got a bunch of cole slaw, so I hope somebody’s running a special on pork shoulder.

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No-fault Pasta

Painted in Waterlogue

A friend of ours got married on Sunday.

Another friend didn’t.

You get the idea, I think: those two friends once expected to be married to each other, and that marriage did not come to pass. Their relationship is not the point of this story; what is the point is that the friend who wasn’t putting on a tux this weekend wanted to have other things to think about than the friend who was putting on a pretty dress. We picked him up near relatives we were visiting and brought him home with us.

It was a perfect Sunday for a road trip: not too hot, not too humid, and lots of traffic. That might not seem like a good thing, but it gave my navigator an excuse to show her skills. We spent most of the day on back roads and small state routes that avoided the blockages and gave us much prettier scenery.

We stopped for lunch at a terrific—and uncrowded—place in a town I didn’t know anything about, and enjoyed grinders, salads, fish and chips and clam chowder, with a little Food Network in the background on the bar TV. We stopped at an outlet mall and did a little shopping, amusing ourselves greatly at the gender-stereotype-busting of the girl buying far less than the guys. Unfortunately, the stereo speakers I’d been looking for were out of stock. (Side note: Honey, I just ordered them from Amazon.)

By the time we got home and met the hungry cats, we were hungry, too, but not for anything big and heavy. And, remember, it was Sunday night—a veg box will arrive Tuesday morning, and there were still plenty of things in the crisper. While she made up the guest room, I chatted with our guest and made dinner. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but there was no question that it would contain plenty of vegetables. Sometimes you just have to start cooking and figure it out along the way.

No-Fault Pasta

Clearing out the crisper, discover:
1/2 lb. green beans
1/3 lb. asparagus
4 small cucumbers
half a bag of baby carrots brought home from someone’s lunch
4 oz. Baby Bella mushrooms
half a bunch of celery
1 celtuce
1 or 2 garlic scapes (Note that there are more, but that common decency suggests their judicious use–and that they still look plenty sturdy. Plan to regret this decision if next week’s box contains more.)

Elsewhere in the fridge, find:
A jar of chive vinegar
4 oz. chive-and-spinach pesto
a big hunk of parmesan cheese
a container of bite-sized mozzarella balls.

From the freezer, retrieve
4 oz. bulk Italian sausage

On the counter, catch sight of:
half a tub of week-old grape tomatoes, their skin just starting to wrinkle
the bottle of rosemary simple syrup used to sweeten the iced tea you took upstairs to the room-straightener.

From the pantry, retrieve:
A box of fettuccini

Note also the bounty of dill and oregano in the herb-garden-basket hung by the kitchen window.

Set a pot of salted water to boil.

Slice the cucumbers into a bowl, tossing with a couple teaspoons of the vinegar, a splash of rosemary simple syrup, and a couple of sprigs of dill from the kitchen garden.

Open a bottle of red wine; pour each of you a glass. Toast to friends, and to happiness. 

Rinse and trim the asparagus and green beans; cut them into bite-size pieces and toss in a big bowl. Don’t bother to dry them; instead, put a paper towel over the bowl; microwave 90 seconds to just-barely-steam the vegetables. Drain and set aside.

In a skillet over medium heat, brown the sausage; drain and remove.

Peel the celtuce as you would a broccoli stem; slice into coins about 1/4 inch thick. Taste raw, noting that it really does have a little celery flavor, but is much denser–almost like a water chestnut. Set aside.

When the water boils, add the fettuccini, stirring occasionally. (The clock is now ticking: finish everything else by the time the pasta cooks).

Dice an onion, which you’ve dispatched your guest to retrieve from the pantry-in-the-garage. Sauté it and a couple stalks of celery in a little olive oil until the onion is barely translucent. Finely slice the garlic scape and add it, along with the beans and asparagus; since they’re mostly cooked, the point is just to get everything combined without browning too much. Slice the baby carrots and add them; they’ll still be mostly crunchy when you’re done. Deglaze the pan with a splash of the wine. Clean and slice the mushrooms, but if your guest isn’t a fan of them, sauté them alone in a small skillet. (This is why stoves have several heating elements.)

Hand a hunk of cheese, the grater, and a collecting bowl to your guest.

Halve the grape tomatoes. When the sautéed vegetables are almost tender, add them to the skillet, along with the celtuce coins and the sausage. Toss to combine, then reduce the heat to low. Add 3 or 4 tbsp of the pesto to the center of the pan, but just let it sit on top to warm gently.

Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water, and divide into serving bowls.

Add a splash of the pasta water to the skillet; give everything a gentle toss to combine; taste and adjust seasoning, then spoon the seriously veggie sauce over the pasta. Add mushrooms or not. Sprinkle some fresh oregano on top, then let each diner add cheese to taste. Serve with the quick-pickled cucumbers.

Serves 3, who will be happy enough that everyone will forget about dessert.

If you’ve read more than one Dinner at the Country House post, you know perfectly well that this is not so much a recipe as a story about an adventure shared with others. If there had been chicken instead of sausage, I would have happily used that; if there had been no pesto, I might have used soy sauce and made rice instead of noodles. If any of a great many things had been different, I might have written about a wedding feast a couple years ago, rather than a not-wedding dinner last night, or served four instead of three, or gone to the movies by myself. It’s nobody’s fault. This is what happened. This is how we made the best of it. This is how we spent the day. This is how life goes on.

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The Enemy of the Good

Why, yes, I am enjoying watercolor effects.

Late in the evening I had an impromptu conference with the Artistic Director.  I also had an organic cheese puff. Or maybe 3. Hey, he offered.

The topic of conversation was our leading man, who was struggling with the high notes in one of his songs. The solution was obvious: change the key. Our director, a voice teacher by profession, was convinced the actor could become comfortable with the high notes in time. She’s probably right. And I can probably run a six-minute mile to keep pace with our assistant stage manager. But not before we open in a week and a half.

AD agreed to order the music in a new key. I heard that the actors were almost up to my next cue, so I hustled to the piano. I went back to his table during the next dialogue scene.  He held out the bag of cheese puffs.  I declined with thanks. What I really was seeking was advice about another song, in which four actors sing backing vocals to a featured performer. They’re supposed to sing these vocals–in high, tight harmony–while dancing up a storm. They’re perfectly good dancers, but none of them actors is a high tenor.

“Can you thin out the harmony, or have them sing in unison?”

“That’s exactly what I want to do, but I wanted to hear you say it.”

After our Act II run-through, I gathered the guys, demonstrated a new vocal part, which they sang effortlessly, with great confidence, and great relief. I worked with the leading guy, too. He understood why I wanted to make the change, but he felt like he was letting us down. I did my best to convince him otherwise. We like him. We like his acting, his ease on stage, his chemistry with the leading lady. And we like his singing. His vocal mechanism just isn’t ready to sing those high notes, any more than I’m equipped to cut my mile time by almost half.

Looking back at both of these songs, I probably should have insisted we make the changes even before the first rehearsal. But none of us wants to do less than our best. Even if the composer won’t be in the room, we want to honor her intentions. We want it to be as it should be. We want it to be perfect. But the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

She has this problem at work, too.  She and her colleagues were, by their own admission, A students who felt awful if they didn’t score 100% on every test and get all the extra credit points. Often as not, though, their not-quite-perfect work is better than someone else’s A. They’ve taken to calling themselves “The B+ Girls.”

I put some rotini in a pot of water just off the boil, turned off the heat, and ran an errand that took longer than I expected. The noodles were a little softer than I’d meant, but I’m okay with that.

B+ Pasta Salad

Combine in a large bowl:

1/2 lb. rotini (or other curly, the better to hold dressing) pasta, cooked in salted water then drained. Don’t beat yourself up if the pasta is a little past al dente.

1 carrot, in smallish pieces.

3 ribs celery, or thereabouts, sliced somewhere near thinly.

1/2 cup pepperoni—but salami would do, or even ham—sliced or cubed.

1 hard-boiled egg, chopped. Don’t even try for a perfect dice.

1/2 cup mozzarella cheese–sliced or grated or in little balls. Fresh if you have it, but don’t make a special trip to the market.

6 peppadew peppers, roughly chopped.

1 cup marinated mushrooms–and don’t give a moment’s thought that you didn’t marinate them yourself.

3 cups spinach, rinsed, dried, and torn or sliced into pieces.

Toss with:

1/4 cup viniagrette dressing (from the back of the fridge), augmented with
a little brown mustard (any variety you grab), and
a splash of olive oil.

Add pepper to taste. (Between the pasta cooking water, the dressing, the pepperoni, and the mushrooms, you won’t need salt.)

This is best after a night in the refrigerator, but if you need lunch in a hurry, it’s pretty good right away.  And certainly better than takeout.

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