Posts tagged penne

Improv night: Broccoli penne with lentils

Welcome to Improv Night, when I feature a thrown-together meal from my kitchen.

Here’s the thing: As much as I love my cookbooks, and my dog-eared food magazine collection, and the wide, wide world of worldly recipes on the web, sometimes dinner is less about following someone else’s very specific instructions and more about catering to my of-the-moment whims.

Allow me to continue: Sometimes dinner is about that fresh bundle of asparagus that looked too promising to resist, or about those languishing greens or leftover salmon. Put together with some grains or legumes from the pantry, whatever herbs or spices beg to be used, and we’re one fed and happy family. No recipe required, just a little hard-won experience and well-practiced intuition.

It’s not the timid way I used to do things, back when separate ingredients like flour and baking soda were suspect time-suckers, when I thought making muffins from a mix was the modern way to do things.

These days I care less about modernity and more about scratch cooking (and aren’t we glad that cooking is the new take-out, anyway?).  Now when I use a recipe it’s because I want to learn a new technique, or get a feel for an unusual ingredient. More often than not, I’ll take a recipe as a suggestion rather than as a set-in-stone way to prepare a dish.

The keys to improv dinners are a well-stocked pantry and freezer, a few fresh herbs, a well-honed trick or two, and a willingness to experiment.

This time there was a waiting head of organic broccoli from my produce basket and a Tupperware of leftover lentils. Once I discovered some caramelized onions in the fridge as well, things really got moving.

Prep went something like this: I washed and thinly sliced the broccoli (it cooks better that way) while my medium frying pan, with a bit of olive oil, was heating. I sauteed the broccoli with a fat pinch of red pepper flakes for several minutes until it was just tender, but nowhere near mushy. I added a few cloves of minced garlic part way through the saute.

Then I poured in a can of whole tomatoes (Muir Glen’s Fire-Roasted are my favorite) and broke them up with a wooden spoon as they simmered. I threw in the caramelized onions and about a cup of black lentils, got generous with the salt and pepper, and let it bubble gently away while I cooked the penne.

I boiled the penne until it was just barely al dente, then, using a large slotted pasta ladle, transferred it to the pan with the sauce to let it finish cooking there.

Of course I topped it all with shavings of Parmesan, and of course I served it with a bit of crusty bread and a simple crunchy salad. Like I said: Fed and happy.

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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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