Archive for July, 2009

The truth comes out

[Recipe: Penne with Artichokes and Tomato Sauce]

Sometimes, you just have to question authority. Take, for example, the seemingly set-in-stone instructions for boiling pasta.

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Turns out those cooking directions on the pasta package could use a “green” rewrite. The 4 to 6 recommended quarts per pound of pasta? There’s a gratuitous, wasted couple of quarts in there, according to a some recent experiments (one in The New York Times and the other at Ideal Bite).

I can’t claim to ever having measured my pasta cooking water, quart by quart (I’m not a lazy cook, but I do like to play fast and loose with measurements). I’m guessing I’ve used less than those directions request all along. But what I hadn’t tried was this tip: Place the pasta in cold water before bringing it to a boil.

It’s a method that I imagine would make my Italian grandmother clasp her hand to her heart and suck air faster than I can burn garlic (ok, so as both my grandmothers are Idahoan, no family rifts will result from such blasphemy).

It worked for me, and now I’m game to boldly experiment with the lid cooking method next time: Bring the reduced amount of water to a boil with the pasta, place a tight lid on top of the pot, turn off the stove, and wait for the recommended cooking time.

Then be sure to use a ladle or two of the silky, starchy cooking water in a sauce. You can check both “Make dinner” and “Engage in some planet-saving activity” off your list.

Penne with Artichokes and Tomato Sauce

When we lived on the East Coast, we used to visit Three Tomatoes Trattoria on Burlington’s Church Street on a regular basis. My favorite pasta was a pan-fried artichoke dish, and this is (very loosely) based on my memories of that.

1/2 lb whole wheat penne pasta
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 small, or 1/2 large, red onion, chopped
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 can or 1 pkg frozen artichoke hearts
2 portobello mushroom caps, stems and gills removed, then quartered and sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 C red wine or Fre
1 jar tomato-based, meatless pasta sauce (a slightly spicy arrabiata, or another that contains roasted red peppers, is your most flavorful bet; and if you’re not in a pinch, make your own)
Freshly grated Parmesan

Cook the pasta. In a large saute pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat, then cook the onion until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the artichoke hearts and mushrooms, along with salt and pepper, raise the heat to medium high, and stir frequently. When the vegetables have browned (another 5 minutes or so), add the wine and continue to stir. When wine has been absorbed, pour in the tomato sauce and turn the heat to medium low. When the sauce is thoroughly warmed, toss the cooked pasta in with the sauce. Transfer to serving bowls and top with grated Parmesan.

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Rescue me

[Recipe: Summer Shrimp Tacos]

Nothing says summer — other than a hearty slab of watermelon — like shrimp tacos.

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Not that I need anything to say, “summer,” to me. The sun is blaring it loud and clear with its constancy. My day lilies are hoarsely muttering it, parched after I left them for three long weeks to be tended by an unreliable sprinkler system. Yes, it’s a Southwest summer (read: 110-degree highs), and I’m stranded in the middle of a desert heat island with nothing to rescue me but a bowlful of sticky limes and a freezer full of shrimp.

What we all need in times like these is a good cool-me-down dish. This one’s a no-cook no-brainer, fresh-tasting and mildly spiced.

And it couldn’t be more perfect than when chased by a slice or two of watermelon.

Summer Shrimp Tacos

Serves 4

I’ve never been heavy-handed when it comes to mayo in my seafood. I added a touch here to hold everything together, but in no way does it overpower the other flavors. Need a nice accompaniment? Use your leftover cilantro in a corn and black bean salad.

Whole wheat or corn tortillas

1 lb small cooked shrimp

2 tbsp yogurt or mayonnaise

1 jar salsa (a less chunky variety works best)

juice of 1 lime

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tbsp chopped cilantro

Sea salt

1 C finely chopped cabbage

1 C shredded jack cheese

1 avocado, sliced

1/4 C red onion, chopped

In a medium bowl whisk together yogurt or mayonnaise, 2 tbsp of the salsa, lime juice, garlic and cilantro. Stir in shrimp and cabbage, then add sea salt to taste (try 1/2 tsp to start).

Divide shrimp mixture among warmed tortillas. Top with cheese, avocado and red onion. Serve with more salsa.

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Potato po-tah-to

Here’s an outtake from my summer travels: potato mashers from the world’s purported largest potato masher collection.

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My kitchen doesn’t even contain a potato masher, but someone out there was enthusiastic enough about the utensil to cultivate this extensive assemblage, on display at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho (incidentally, America’s potato capital). I like to think about the hands that gripped and wore down these handles, about the Sunday dinners and family gatherings and countless holidays that necessitated their use.

Did the home cooks who once employed these mashers leave the skins intact or peel the potatoes down to pure whiteness? Did they use butter or broth? Exclusively milk or a generous splash of heavy cream? Did they prefer the texture of a few toothsome potato chunks or an ultra-creamy mash?

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One thing I’d bet on: the generation of cooks that owned these mashers probably never threw in a hot dash of wasabi.

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Is it any wonder?

[Recipe: Tomato Vinaigrette]

My dad is famous for saying things like, “This banana is a wonder food!” or “Isn’t this apple a miracle?” Some daughters might roll their eyes at this constant display of exuberance over fresh produce, but not me.

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I feel much the same way. How amazing it really is that we can be so nourished by these products of nature. Often foods that are grown require nurturing, a little help from the hand of man. But none of that downplays the miracle.

Part of the wonder is the idea of taking fresh produce and whirring it into something a lot of people think they can only buy in a bottle. I’m talking about vinaigrette. This one comes from a bulgur and portabello sandwich recipe featured in Gourmet, but its facility goes way beyond. I’ll be expanding its repertoire by marinating salmon with it, serving it atop salads, maybe mixing a little with some hummus for a veggie sandwich.

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Endless possibilities from a couple handfuls of tomatoes and some fresh herbs – that’s a miracle worthy of all kinds of fatherly enthusiasm.

Tomato Vinaigrette

Adapted from Gourmet

1 large garlic clove

1 pint grape tomatoes

½ C mint or basil leaves

¼ C extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1/8 tsp red-pepper flakes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chop the garlic in a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients and process until combined and the tomatoes are just shy of puree.

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Nigella radio

I can pretty much guarantee I’ll never-ever-ever cook the ham & Cherry Coke recipe Nigella Lawson described on NPR’s Morning Edition today, but I still feel inspired hearing her go on about it.

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It’s not just the accent. It’s that she shares the same heartening “everybody can and everybody should cook” philosophy that I love in Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

If you like to cook — and particularly if you’re keen on the loose art of kitchen improv — you’ll enjoy this interview. Nigella talks about using a recipe as a jumping off point for one’s own food creations. We tend to say we are “following” a recipe, but a recipe follower is just that: a follower. Not necessarily a negative thing. Following a recipe, with the intent to reproduce a dish exactly as described in print, is indeed cooking; it achieves the end goal of food on the table.

But when your intent reaches beyond the recipe — when you’re engaged in that risky and adventurous behavior of trial and error — that’s when you’re cooking well.

And that holds true even if your spontaneous broccoli pesto proves a bit too garlicky. Because, like Nigella says, that just means you know what to tweak next time around.

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