Tag Archives: Pasta

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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Latch-Key Mac and Cheese

IMG_0036 Packaged macaroni and cheese is the first meal she was allowed to cook. It was an after-school snack when she got home before her parents did. She wonders sometimes that her parents let her come home to an empty house, but it was a simpler time back then, and she was a very smart kid. Boil and drain the noodles, add a lump of butter and some milk, stir in the packet of bright-orange powder, stir and enjoy. A pot of boiling water might be risky, but at least there are no sharp knives involved, and there’s no possibility of undercooking meat. As after-school snacks go, it’s probably better than a bowl of ice cream or an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. She knows it’s not gourmet cuisine, but it is comforting and friendly and nothing in the world is going to change her mind on that subject. Well, maybe a recall of packaged macaroni-and-cheese. Even without a recall because they accidentally added metal shavings, there’s a lot of stuff in that orange powder that you wouldn’t put in if you were making it from scratch.  All you need, really, is macaroni. And cheese. We joke about the “extras” I try to put in M&C, like a pile of sautéed kale or a handful of pan-roasted tomatoes, but even I recognize that they are accompaniments rather than ingredients. We both laughed out loud when I saw this recipe: Fundamentalist Macaroni and Cheese The humor of The Awl’s essay, from which this is adapted, is lost in this simplification. Read the original for fun. Boil 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni until it is not quite al dente. Grate a pound of cheddar cheese–half mild, half sharp. Drain the macaroni. Wipe out the pot and rub with butter. Add the macaroni back into the pot, then stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Add about 1/2 cup milk. Bake at 350F until top is slightly brown and crunchy, probably about 40 minutes. That’s it. I made a batch. And it was really quite good. Not at all elaborate, not complicated, but very good. The cheese was neither too mild nor too sharp; the noodles were nicely sturdy. I thought it could use some kale, but that’s another story. She got home and was thrilled to see what I’d done, but since I’d also made tomato soup–it was a batch-cooking Sunday night–she opted for a grilled cheese sandwich with the soup for her supper. Turns out it doesn’t reheat all that well, though. The cheese separates a little in the microwave. Maybe it would be better if it were reheated in a pan on the stovetop, or maybe at a lower power level. Or maybe this is a recipe we use when we don’t want leftovers. My grandmother lived with my parents and me, so I hardly ever came home to an empty house.  I don’t remember the first meal I was allowed to cook.  It was probably something like Spaghetti-o’s, which are arguably no healthier than the Blue Box. Maybe I just had a cookie. Or three.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Pasta

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It had been a whirlwind week, followed by a busy weekend leading into another week that’ll be more of the same. Major events are kicking up in her organization, and rehearsals and performances fill my evenings. Dinners together will be the exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to get focused on what has to be done at work and then discover a load of clothes put in the washer on Tuesday hasn’t been moved to the dryer until Friday. Or that we’ve driven past the market while holding the shopping list.

We remembered lunch, though. She had it nearly ready by the time I got home. All that was left was to grate the cheese I’d just brought–after I remembered where I was going and circled back for it. Pasta was bubbling. Cream simmered in a saucepan, flecked with perky strands of lemon zest and dark green rosemary. I squeezed the lemons for her before she realized that the recipe called for zest but not juice. That’s okay; I’ll make lemon soda sometime soon. She stirred in the cheese, steamed some asparagus to add, and brought everything together. The sauce was beautifully balanced between tart citrus, rich cream, and salty-sharp parmesan. A sprinkle of cayenne and a few grinds of black pepper contributed a little warmth, and the asparagus brought its unique earthiness. Nothing overwhelmed another–which is good, since we were both a little overwhelmed by life.

The recipe she was following didn’t include the asparagus, but I’m glad we did. Vegetables are always welcome. I’m sure we’ll try this again someday, perhaps with a little less cream and many more vegetables, as a pasta primavera. It’s time for that sort of thing, even if the thermometer doesn’t quite agree and there’s still snow on the ground. It might even be pleasant enough to linger over lunch on the deck. Not today, though, but that’s just as well; we had only enough time to clean up after lunch before going our separate ways for evening events.

The time it takes to make a simple meal is always well-spent, and most certainly healthier than speaking into an intercom and having someone hand a sack of burgers to us through a window. Even when the meal is a bowl of pasta and cheese.

Breakfast Bolognese

“Could I have a donut and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast?” she asked.

The CSA share included a dozen eggs every week, and with only two of us in the house, we always had eggs around; we kept a half-dozen hard boiled for easy breakfasts. But friends have taken over the CSA share, and our egg supply gradually diminished.  I picked up a dozen after rehearsal.

I knew I forgot to do something when I got home: there were no hard-boiled eggs. There was, however, just about enough time. I put four eggs in a pan of water along with her magical egg timer, and set it to boil.  The eggs were cooked, but, at her departure time, too hot to carry.  I offered a pig-in-a-blanket left over from race-morning brunch, some grapes, and the requested donut. From her reaction, that was an even better choice.

Having scooped out the eggs and timer, I had a pot of just-off-the-boil water. I was just about to pour it down the drain when I remembered the last of a container of bolognese sauce in the fridge.  I liked the idea of conserving resources by re-using the hot water. I put the pot back on the still-warm-but-turned-off stove, salted the water, and poured in some dry pasta. I lidded the  pot, grabbed my keys, and the took the commuter to meet her train. Upon returning from the station, I found a pot of perfectly al dente pasta.

A friend of ours posted to Facebook recently that her son was sulking because he couldn’t have macaroni and cheese for breakfast.  I presume the issue was that there was no macaroni and cheese in the house, rather than some sort of parental concern that it would be an inappropriate breakfast food. I resisted the temptation to heat the sauce and have penne bolognese for breakfast, but only because I would have felt the need to tease our friend about her son’s breakfast request.

Of course, maybe I just did.

Quiet Dinner for One

I’d had an early-evening meeting, and got home with about an hour before her train arrived. She met a friend for drinks and snacks that turned into dinner. I heated some pasta and her rustic tomato sauce, adding a big handful of broccoli florets and a little mozzarella cheese and maybe a teaspoon of diced pepperoni. While the microwave worked its magic, I fed the cats and packed breakfast and lunch for Tuesday. I ate dinner at the table with a proper napkin, good posture, and an interesting book I bought months ago thinking it might possibly become a musical. It might, or might not, but I’m enjoying it either way. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like, so it was nice to spend time with a story on paper. A glass of wine would have been nice with the pasta, but not after a long day–and not before driving to the station to meet her train.

A bowl of pasta and a book. Laundry folding and conversation about our days. Domestic. Tranquility.

Tag Team

Sometimes we cook together, start to finish.  Sometimes one of us is on dinner duty while the other handles other chores, or isn’t even home yet.  Or it’s some combination of the two.

Knowing there would be tomatoes in this week’s CSA distribution, and realizing we still had a pile of tomatoes from last week’s share, we decided on a simple sauce to serve with pasta. While she was at work on Tuesday, I chopped the tomatoes, diced an onion, and baked some bacon.  Upon her return, she sautéed the onion, added tomatoes and capers, and cooked them until the tomatoes were soft and their juices reduced; also, she made a batch of penne. Everything was cooled and tucked away for Wednesday dinner.

We met at the terminal for a companionable train ride home in the Quiet Car; I worked on lyrics for a new project, she read an Agatha Christie novel.  Home at the Country House, we divided labor: she cleared the laundry closet for the painter who’ll arrive this morning; I fixed dinner.  I heated the sauce, gave the pasta a hot-water dunk to warm and separate, snipped some basil, crumbled a slice of bacon, sprinkled some cheese, added a little salt and pepper, and bowled it up, along with a couple ears of late-summer corn.  She finished the closet in time to prepare croutons (small pieces of bread we use to butter ears of corn), and we settled down to enjoy the result.

It isn’t just cooking; maybe she’ll sort and start a load of laundry, and I’ll switch it to the dryer and fold it, or the other way around. Dishes are washed and dried; the dishwasher is loaded and emptied; the cats get fed and the litter box  scooped. We don’t have “assigned” chores, but everything gets done.

Sharing. Nothing fancy. But simple. And wonderful. Like a bowl of pasta and an ear of corn.

Pasta and corn. Lots of basil, in place of a salad.  I forgot the mozzarella cheese we'd planned to cube into this dish, but that means the leftovers will be different!

Pasta and corn. Lots of basil, in place of a salad. I forgot the mozzarella cheese we’d planned to cube into this dish, but that means the leftovers will be different!