Tag Archives: whole wheat pasta

Battle of the Butternut

31 Jan

Nothing quite matches the affection we home cooks feel for a food once we’ve conquered it. Conquering is very different than mastering, which I would imagine comes with its own satisfaction but isn’t something I’ll feign to know much about at this point in my culinary career (because I don’t think adding pumpkin spice to the Mr. Coffee counts, though it does make for a damn tasty travel mug on your morning commute).  Conquering a food involves taking whatever steps necessary, be they imaginative, embarrassing or downright ugly,  to transform a once-mystifying ingredient into something not only delicious, but decidedly different than your typical mealtime routine.

I feel this surge of fondness everytime I see butternut squash, its chalky yellow coat tucking in the rich orange flesh with its sweet, cara-mellow flavor. My first battle with the butternut occurred on a Tuesday night at Project Open Hand, an amazing SF-based organization that makes, serves and delivers meals to seniors and the chronically ill.  Founded in the early 80’s out of one woman’s kitchen to serve AIDS patients receiving no support (or even recognition of their disease) from the government or their families, and whose chosen families more often than not tragically found themselves in the same position, the group operates largely on the strength of its kitchen volunteer base. While I learned a ton about the community in which I live and my neighbors of all ages and walks of life during the year in which I spent every Tuesday night slicing, dicing and packing whatever slid my way across the Polk Street kitchen’s steel industrial counters, one of the most tangible lessons I is how to wrestle a squash into submission. Believe me, once you’ve determinedly hacked your way through 75 of these bulbous little buggers, you know it’s really love.

I still don’t understand how those with Jedi knife skills manage to slice them neatly lengthwise. The best I can do is  cut off the top and bottom nubs, slice across the base of its neck, and whack into whatever pieces I can from there. I find peelers do little on the tough skin except increase the chances of peeling your own, so I just slice off chunks of the skin piece by piece. This leaves you with beautiful building blocks of rich gold shaped more like what you typically find in a first-grade classroom than you do in a kitchen.

Scoop out the seeds and you now you have the pieces to make hundreds of varying dishes using this agreeable $1 starch as a centerpiece. Most of mine seem to start by cutting it into small chunks, tossing with olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper and roasting on baking sheets in a 400 degree oven until soft and just sweet, usually anywhere from 15 – 35 minutes depending  on size of your cubes.

It's kind of like seasonal baby food for adults on a budget.

You can make any number of simple soups without much planning, or with just a little, one my favorite recipes, Risotto with Butternut Squash, Jack Cheese & Pancetta from Cooking Light (check it out as much for the Dutch oven baked risotto trick, immeasurably simple than the notoriously laborious traditional stove-top method, as for the fact that the gooey cheese, crispy pancetta and creamy squash combo is beyond delicious).

But you know what? I have mastered something, damnit. The delicious weekday pasta, complete in the time it takes the water to boil and the easiest way to use whatever’s on its way out in your fridge,  that’s always ten times more satisfying (and no doubt healthier) than anything a Ragu can will produce. Here’s one recent Meatless Monday edition.

And please, because I love an indulgence – what foods have you conquered? Mastered? Dreamed about? Let us culinarily crowd-source our wisdom…

WHY LEAVE THE HOUSE BUTTERNUT SQUASH & MUSHROOM LINGUINI

Ingredients

  • Whole wheat linguini
  • Butternut squash, obv. For enough pasta for 2 plus lunch leftovers, I used about half of 1 squash, saving the rest of the roasted cubes to add to salads for lunch for the week.
  • A shallot (a little more delicate than onions)
  • A clove or two of garlic
  • Couple handfuls of mushrooms (because they were about to go bad in the fridge, but they always add heft  to a meatless meal, plus their robust earthiness is a nice complement to the smooth squash)
  • Thyme & nutmeg
  • Splash of white wine (since pretty much everyone I have over is a red drinker, I love not having to feel guilty about opening a bottle of white if you’re craving just a glass or two – save the rest in the fridge for months for cooking)
  • Yogurt (or milk, or buttermilk, again, whatever dairy you have to use up will work)
  • Fresh grated parm or good topping cheese
  1. Boil salted water. Add pasta when that’s happened.
  2. Quash that squash. Prep squash as above – cube, toss with olive soil, thyme, s/p and bake on a parchment or tin-foil lined tray at 400 until just soft, 15 – 25 minutes.
  3. Sautee away. Heat olive oil, add shallots, stir a bit for a couple minutes. Add garlic, let just brown. Add mushrooms, sprinkle on nutmeg, and let them sweat out their water. Toss in a splash of wine and reduce.
  4. Make liquid gold. Just before pasta is done, add a scoop of pasta water, plus a scoop or two of yogurt to the mushroom sautee pan on low heat, stirring until seamlessly combined. Add squash at last minute (I added earlier and it became a bit mushy)
  5. Mix it. Drain the pasta when it’s done, reserving a splash of the cooking water. Add pasta back to pot with the splash of cooking water, stirring over low heat until combined.
  6. Season. Top with salt ( if necessary),  plenty of fresh ground black pepper (always necessary) and grated cheese, if you have it.
  7. Check SurfTheChannel.com to see if there’s a new Gossip Girl. What else are Mondays good for?
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Summer Tour, Part III: Bologna, by way Caroliina.

18 Aug

What could be more a more retro-fab American way to make Monday night dinner than by playing sous-chef (or “pinche,” as my Oklahoman grandfather would call it, partially in mocking deference to his partially-Chilean wife) for your Irish/Hungarian mom while she makes her family’s favorite Italian recipe? Nothing I can think of, except maybe doing it barefoot in a bathing suit while sipping a Red Hook nestle-chilled in a personalized wedding beer koozie. In the South. Also, just owning and using several beer koozies.

Recognize that koozie, Lynne? Tim + Vanessa 2009. That one's for you!

Although my personal kitchen hero Marcella Hazan would no doubt turn up her discerning nose at the thought of serving her famed five-hour Bolognese to a soundtrack of pre-season football (sorry, ‘Cell, but the fam loves the G-Men and I had given Mark Sanchez my heart even before my roomie and I managed to use his unparalleled visage to stop a lady-cop from impounding her car), I think she’d have to approve of the spirit behind the afternoon of prep for the feast.

There is no better vacation to me than the one my family takes every year to Oak Island, North Carolina, precisely because there’s literally nothing to do but nothing. With no museums to feel guilty about not visiting because you’re secretly uninterested in “learning about local culture,” nor any social scene to feel the need to put on heels for, these precious days on the bath-water warm Atlantic are reserved for sunning, swimming and reading crappy Jane Green novels. Evenings, meanwhile, follow one mandate alone, and needless to say it’s one of my favorites: eat, drink and be merry. So, after a morning of soaking up plenty of sunburn and several men’s magazines pilfered from the office (PR: it’s good for subscriptions), Mom and I retired to the rental house kitchen together to kick off the meal that will always make me think of the seemingly effortless love and care she devotes to feeding her family.

One of my earliest, and most visceral, food memories is the familiar grumble of thrilled hunger I’d feel when I’d come into our kitchen on Wedgewood Road and peer over the red and black granite countertop of the island to find on the stovetop a pot of stewing tomato sauce. Not plain red but flecked with the tiniest curls of almost grey-bluish beef simmering amidst barely detectable slivers of onion, carrot and celery. Fascinated, I would stand on tiptoes to reach for the wooden spoon resting next to the burner to skim the layer of thick orange fat layer that gathered sedentarily between the slow, frothing bubbles.

Marcella describes it better than I can, as just reading one of her recipes paints a picture of the domineering, bourbon-swilling dame responsible for teaching American there’s more to red sauce than Ragu brand long before Mario Batali did: “the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.” Hers was the first (new) cookbook my mom ever gave me for Christmas, and I vividly remember sitting in the backyard of my apartment in San Francisco in a stolen patch of January sunlight tuning out Jean-Claude, our French super who wears a beret and drives his three ancient whippet dogs everywhere in a van adorned on each side (roof included) with a perfectly replicated Pink Floyd album cover, while I pored over each of her directions. I could hear each one as sternly resolute as if they came straight from the mouth of the Italian grandmother I’ve never had. It’s pronouncements like these I love – Marcella, on Pasta:

“There is not the slightest justification for preferring homemade pasta to factory-made. Those who do deprive themselves of some of the most flavorful dishes in the Italian reperatory… They are seldom interchangeable, but in terms of absolute quality, they are fully equal.”

One more favorite before I tell you how to make the damn dinner. On tomatoes:

“The flavor of fresh tomatoes is livelier, less cloying than that of the canned, but fully ripened fresh tomatoes for cooking are still not a common feature of North American markets, except for the six or eight weeks during the summer when they are brought in from nearby farms. When you are unable to get good fresh tomatoes, rather than cook with watery, tasteless ones, it’s best to turn to the dependable canned variety.”

I’ll spare you her thoughts on the acceptable canned varieties. Obviously, they’re Italian.

No doubt she’ll recount the entire recipe for the Bolognese I’ve been eating my entire life far better than I can, so I’ll direct you to it: Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce, from The Essentials of Italian Cooking. But, to paraphrase, you first make a soffrito (dice about a handful of onions, celery and carrots, and heat, in that order, in oil and butter until soft).

The best way to get your veggies? Bathed in oil AND butter, clearly.

Sounds simple, right? It is. Although, not so much with Marcella over your shoulder:

“An imperfectly executed soffrito will impair the flavor of a dish no matter how carefully all of the succeeding steps are carried out. If the onion is merely stewed or incompletely sauteed, the taste of the sauce, or the risotto, or the vegetable never takes off and will remain feeble.”

So don’t eff it up.

Add ground beef and cook “until it loses its raw, red color,” S&P it, then add the two secret ingredients – milk (for which Mom took a measuring cup to the neighbors to fill because we only had skim – Americana at its best, my friends) and nutmeg (adding “warm” seasonings like allspice and cinnamon to sauces is a favorite tasty trick I got from Mom which I now suspect she plucked from Marcella herself). When the milk has evaporated, you add the same amount of white wine you added milk until that has evaporated too.

Here, Marcella left me to panic, because by this time in the recipe you have a yellow mass of liquid and it’s almost impossible to tell when exactly that magic moment is. I realized, though, that besides using the residue on the side of the pot to judge when the chalky white line has diminished to more or less where it was was before you added the wine, you can actually smell the sharpness of the alcohol until it has burned away. After that, you add the canned tomatoes, and then you wait. For hours. And hours. And more hours.

In the meantime, go finish off that sunburn. Return to the house to stir the pot every so often – like when the tingling on that awkward spot on your arm you didn’t reach makes you realize you need more SPF 30, when you feel the need to compulsively check your Blackberry despite the fact they’re certainly not paying you to do so, or if you have to use the bathroom in a manner not appropriate for the ocean. (Not that girls poo. Everybody knows we don’t. Ew.)

When it becomes four o’clock somewhere, a perfectly appropriate location being your own mind, I suggest you fix yourself a While You Wait Whiskey, my debut cocktail creation, inspired by a delicious visit to the Whiskey Kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee (thanks for gradumacating, brosef!).

Look, fruits too!! This day has ALL the food groups.

Cut up two or three strawberries into small pieces. Do what mixologists call “muddling” – mash them up how you see fit. I used the detachment from an electric mixer. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice into the mix. Put ice in a glass, pour a shot of bourbon over it (if I had my way I’d of course use Bulleit), add the muddled mix, top with club soda, and stir it all up. Adjust all ingredients to taste. Garnish with a sprig of basil, if you’ve got it, and you’re fancy.

The fam unanimously approved ( After “Stawberries? And whiskey? Katie, you’re so crazy, San Francisco blah blah blah.” Sip. “Oh… that works!” Another sip). Point one, pretension.

Even Brosef, the taste purist (complicating the childhood of yours truly the budding foodie by refusing to go to any restaurants where he'd be forced to eat "fancy pizza"), went for sip 2. Admittedly, the basil was a bit much for him.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When it has, add spaghetti.

Note: I actually think that even if it weren’t a sensible choice by virtue of its being healthier, the nutty taste and grainier texture of whole wheat spaghetti actually makes a nicer compliment to the sauce than traditional white pasta. Sorry, ‘Cell. I will, however, concede the milk battle. Whole – which is four percent fat – just works better than two percent here. It’s vacation.

Sit while the storm clouds you desperately miss on the East Coast roll in.

Meanwhile, open a bottle of wine. It should be full enough to stand up to the meat, but light enough not to overpower the delicate nature of the sauce. We had a Benziger Signaterra “Three Blocks” Red (2006), a Sonoma Cab Sauv (68%)/Merlot blend that is structured but very smooth, with more cocoa than fruit notes. (The bottle was sent to my Mom as part of the wine membership I got her for Christmas, and on a side note for all you wine country visitors, Benziger, a family-owned and run biodynamic winery is one of the best places to to go. I’ll expound later I’m sure.)

This is a completely extraneous shot I'm including only so I can look at it whistfully whilst stranded once again in cubeland braindead zone tomorrow. Sometimes I don't think the gold diggers have it so wrong.

When the pasta is done al dente, strain, “correct the salt” in the sauce, and serve all mixed up topped with parm cheese. After you’ve worked this hard, keep it classy. Make it fresh grated. Do it for Marcella.

Sit down to enjoy it with your adorable family.

But seriously, could they BE any cuter?

And now suspended 10,000 miles in the bumpy air above the Rockies, remembering the vivid sights, smells and tastes that bring me home no matter how far away that may be, I feel incredibly lucky.  Even if it’s precisely the frustratingly fleeting nature of these moments that make them so powerful.

welcome to the good life. catch ya on the flip side.

Summer Tour, Part I: These are my confessions

13 Jul

Ahh, Los Angeles. City of angels, bleached Santa Monica blondes, David Hockney blues, perpetual freeway*, deceptively endearing man-boys in Dodgers caps (yes, it’s a weakness), and of course, the biz.

Lucky for those of us who shun the limiting, reductive and superficial stereotype of the toned, tan fit and ready for which this great state is famed (OF COURSE on purpose due to highly evolved moral ground and DEFINITELY NOT as a byproduct of our natural Irish coloring and propensity for carbohydrates),  there are purportedly more entertainers living here than in any other city at any time in history. This not only means lovely eyecandy is scattered about readily availalable for all to enjoy, but more importantly that the eyecandy need dayjobs. I think the abundance of LA restaurants comes from supply of waitstaff, not demand for feeding. 

Because the eyecandy are also patrons, menus at hotspots like Hugo’s are filled with fare more dressed to leave less impress on the figures of the diet-concious than to satisfy the appetitites of us happily impervious visitors. Well, when in Rome, I always figure.  In this case, Rome involves a penchant for kombucha (maybe for the secrently high alcohol levels that recently led Whole Foods to snatch the elixir from its stores – gawd, thanks for nothing, LoHo) and veganism that probably has more to do with the human than the animal body. So, on my most recent surprise visit to shenanigan the Telanor Kousman, as engineered by his equally handsome and accomodating brother Petros K, I “indulged” myself with this gem:

“GO GREEN FRITTATA: This wonderful breakfast full of protein, minerals, and iron will keep you going and going. Made with egg whites, chard, beet greens, kale, spinach puree, broccolini, zucchini, asparagus, quinoa, garlic, extra virgin olive oil. Topped with alfalfa sprouts and an apple-mango-mint sauce.”

It looks a lot more interesting than it tasted, which was a lot like it sounds – righteously bland. Oh well. At least it was a caloric wash. Plus, I saw the adorable Ben from Big Love (Douglas Smith). I mean, what’s a trip to LA without a spotting of a psuedo-celebrity whose real name you definitely didn’t know before you were then obviously forced to stalk them?

OK, so here’s my real confession. I come to love LA a little bit more everytime I visit. There is a freedom in the understanding that what’s on the surface is a shared cultural value. Elsewhere image is a dirty little secret – here it’s accepted currency.

Of course the real reason it grows on me is I love seeing my friends growing in fabulous ways, like Telanor and Petros settling in their gorgeous vintage apartment, complete with verandas and a black and white checkered kitchen floor. Or near-future breakout sensation Joel Perez, California-bronzed and beaming, about to leave on tour with the smash In the Heights and meeting up with his new castmates for an impromptu Musical Monday bar performance.

The Kousman in his kitchen, my favorite of his many natural environments.

Before hitting the 5 back to the Bay, the Unsinkable M, Joel and I join the Kousaki for a lovely dinner at the authoritative heavy woood table in their very adult dining room. Whole wheat pasta tossed with a light white white and garlic sauce, goat cheese, a florally juicy fresh-squeezed SoCal lemon far sweeter than sour, greens and a few shreds of basil, sea salt and cracked pepper.

Light, easy, delicious. Much like, maybe against my better judgement, I’m quickly coming to regard  this sparkling, sprawling complexity of a city.

*A city of contradictions, Los Angeles had the largest public transit in the country before GM bought it, poured kerosene on the street cars and burned them so that Henry Ford could “solve the city problem [the problem being THE entire POINT OF THE CITY, you a-hole] by leaving the city”. Although if you’re still reading this blog at all you’re aware I’m an unabashed proponent of rambling tangents and tenous connections, even I decided this bit of knowledge must be shared but relegated to a footnote. Also, footnotes feel fancy.