Posts tagged ‘pasta’

How it really works

shrimp and asparagusFoodbloggers sometimes leave the impression that every meal involves planning, shopping, research and recipes. I can’t speak for the rest, but that’s not how it usually works at my house.

Rather, a typical evening meal happens something like this:

  • Get home from work. Feed the cats. Water the garden. Check my e-mail and phone messages. Get distracted uploading photos to Flickr. Realize that my stomach is growling.
  • Wander into the kitchen. Open the refrigerator and stand there staring at the contents. Wonder why I have so many condiments, and how I acquired three half-empty bottles of club soda .
  • Discover something potentially tasty. Think, “Hm, what could I do with that?”
  • Start improvising. Taste. Improvise some more.
  • Declare it dinner. Eat.

All of which is to apologize for the fact that a lot of my favorite meals don’t come from, or produce, recipes – they come from inspiration, and keeping good ingredients on hand. Which means either keeping notes as I go (and who does that?), or trying to reconstruct the dish after the fact, and explains why I often use such technical terms as “a handful of this” or “a glug of that.” In short, I cook pretty much like my mother and grandmother did, except that I’m lucky enough to have a much wider range of ingredients at my disposal.

Last night I was inspired to put together what turned out to be an absolutely delicious pasta dish using local vegetables, herbs from my garden and one of my favorite regional cheeses. I would love to give you a detailed recipe, but I don’t have one. So I’ll tell you what I did, and encourage you to try your own improvisation. Like much of what I cook, this dish could spin off in several different directions, depending on your tastes, your dietary requirements and what’s in your own refrigerator. Frankly, about the only thing you could do to mess it up would be to overcook or overseason.

Pasta with shrimp, asparagus and smoked blue cheese: An improvisation

  1. I usually have a bag of quick-peel shrimp in the freezer, in whatever size is the best price at the supermarket. They’re practically a staple. Last night’s dinner started with pouring a quantity of shrimp into a colander, setting that in a bowl in my kitchen sink and filling it with cold water to thaw the shrimp, a process which took no more than 15 minutes or so – just long enough for me to water the garden.
  2. Once the shrimp were thawed, I peeled them, set some water to boil for pasta, and got out my small skillet, which is the perfect size for one serving of pasta topping; it went on the burner with a little olive oil.
  3. While the oil heated, I chopped a bit of sweet onion and a couple of cloves of garlic; those went into the skillet at medium heat. Practically everything I cook that isn’t dessert starts with “chop some onion and garlic.”
  4. The fridge revealed a half-dozen spears of asparagus left from last weekend’s farmers’ market run. Shrimp and asparagus go great together, so I snapped off the woody ends (and tucked them into my freezer bag of veggie trimmings for stock) and cut the spears in inch-long pieces.
  5. Also in stock: An unopened wedge of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue Cheese, one of those “ooh, must try this!” finds from the supermarket. Rogue makes terrific blue cheeses at its creamery down in Central Point (a great side trip if you’re heading down to Medford or Ashland), and I was delighted to discover that Ray’s Market in North Albany currently has three or four varieties (including a lovely Chipotle Cheddar) in stock. I hope they plan to keep the brand in stock.
  6. Brain starts working, inspired by tastebuds: Asparagus … shrimp … smoked blue cheese. Oh, yeah, baby. The water was boiling, so in went the pasta – just good old spaghetti, although I could have chosen rotini, flat egg noodles or Japanese soba; I tend to keep a lot of noodles on hand.
  7. Once the onion and garlic had begun to soften, I tossed the asparagus and shrimp – both of which benefit from quick cooking – into the pan. Some liquid seemed required, so I opened a bottle of Elk Cove Pinot Gris, poured a splash into the pan, filled my glass and let things simmer a while.
  8. I’d pinched some herbs to stimulate branching while I was watering the garden earlier. No point wasting those tender, aromatic bits, so I minced thyme, oregano, Italian parsley and a couple of tiny basil leaves, and tossed them into the mix.
  9. It took less than five minutes for the shrimp to turn a delicate, opaque pink and the asparagus to reach that vivid-green stage that signals crisp-tender. Time to lower the heat waaaaaaay down to continue reducing the liquid, and add some of that blue cheese, crumbled. I thought about adding a spoonful or two of creme fraiche*, but that seemed excessive. A quick taste (blow on the spoon!) confimred that no further seasoning was required.
  10. In less than a minute of stirring and tossing, the cheese had begun to melt and merge with the pan liquids, so I took the skillet off the heat, plated some pasta and spooned the sauce over it.
  11. One final inspiration: Walnuts. I love the combination of blue cheese and walnuts, so I grabbed a small handful from the bulk bag I keep with baking supplies, broke them with my fingers and scattered them on top of the dish.

Holy cow, that was good. And with a pretty good ratio of local-to-not-local ingredients, too:

  • Local: Asparagus, onion, garlic, cheese, herbs, wine. OK, the cheese and wine aren’t local-local, but I’m willing to stretch the boundaries of “local” to encompass Oregon-made food produced within a few hours’ drive.
  • Not local: Shrimp, pasta, olive oil. And everything but the oil could be local, if shrimp is in season and you make your own pasta. For that matter, you could omit the shrimp and increase the asparagus and have a perfectly satisfying vegetarian meal.

* You know about creme fraiche, don’t you? If you don’t, you should. Milder than sour cream, plus a distinctive, almost nutty flavor, it’s great for saucing dishes because its high butterfat content prevents curdling. It’s also lovely dolloped onto fresh fruit or a scone, floated on top of home-made soups or used any way you might use sour cream or whipped cream. Not easy to find here in the Valley, it sometimes turns up as a specialty item in a supermarket cheese section – I last found it at Safeway, but they don’t stock it regularly.

However, you can extend the life of a single small container by using some of it to grow your own. Just warm a cup or so of heavy cream in a small saucepan (don’t let it boil), let it cool to body temperature, stir in a big spoonful of creme fraiche and pour the mixture into a glass jar with a good lid – a canning jar works great. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours until the cream has thickened (I drape a clean dishcloth over the top to keep out stray environmental yeasts, which can spoil the culture) then lid and refrigerate. Creme fraiche keeps for a couple of weeks, and you can keep culturing more from each batch. You can also use buttermilk as a culture-starter, but I find the resulting flavor a bit sharper and less delicate.

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June 25, 2008 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

Deconstructing Mom’s home cooking

Effortless pasta I am a child of the 1950s, the daughter of a woman who grew up hardscrabble-poor in Depression-era North Texas and went on to learn “modern” cooking and menu planning from Betty Crocker, and a man whose idea of Real Food involved meat, potatoes, and vegetables boiled all day (wtih fatback) on the back of the stove. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle I like food at all.

Take pasta: When I was a kid, we never heard the word, for one thing. It was spaghetti, or macaroni, or noodles, and it came in one of three forms: With red sauce, with American cheese, or as filler in the dish mom called “slumgully” (hamburger, celery, dried onion flakes and canned mushrooms, simmered in her biggest skillet with a sauce made of nothing but ketchup and pan juices, and served over enough flat egg noodles to fill up four hungry kids when there was more month left than money. We loved it. We were kids. What can I say?)

Spaghetti was a big deal, because (in those days before the coming of Ragu), mom made her own sauce, cooking it all day long on the back of the stove. It was mostly canned tomato sauce, canned tomato paste and a little bit of onion. No garlic – my dad didn’t like it. Herbs: Oregano and thyme, from jars that sat on the back of the stove and had about as much flavor as the dust that clung to their surfaces. Hamburger (because it wasn’t a proper meal without meat, except on Fridays), either cooked down until it became one with the sauce, or (for special occasions) formed into meatballs as big as a child’s fist, bound together with egg and corn-flake crumbs.

I don’t want to slander my mother. She actually had a pretty adventurous palate – I can remember her dragging six-year-old me and my little brother through the back streets of the Japanese town near the airbase where we were stationed, and egging us on to sample raw fish, strange soups and exotic vegetables. It’s just that she considered it her job to get three meals a day on the table for a picky husband and four ravenous kids, so she stuck with what was safe, filling – and bland.

Still, some tastes form early, and I do have a taste for pasta with meaty red sauce. Over the years, though, I’ve discovered the joys of sauces that aren’t cooked all day long, that include fresh ingredients and herbs and spices. The result is still comfort food, but it’s comfort food with flavor. Mom, rest her soul, would approve.

This past weekend, I hauled my visiting sweetie down to the market with me. We picked up strawberries, and scones, and a pound of the most excellent breakfast sausage from Wood Family Farm. If you’re an Albany Farmers’ Market habitué you’ve probably tasted or at least smelled it; Dan Wood likes to keep a skillet of sausage simmering at his booth to tempt passersby, and tempting stuff it is, lean and well-seasoned. We took our sausage home and set it out to thaw, thinking to have it for Sunday breakfast. But we wound up going out for breakfast instead, my sweetie took the train back to Seattle – and here I was with a pound of sausage that needed cooking.

And though the weather forecast calls for unseasonable heat by week’s end, it’s still chilly tonight, so I came home from work and went straight for the comfort food: Pasta with an easy, flavorful sauce that took hardly any effort to prepare.

You may not have oven-roasted tomatoes in your freezer. I was kind of surprised to discover that I did – I thought I’d used the last container from the 2007 harvest. I was delighted to find I still had about a pint of the stuff – but it’s not essential. You can make this with fresh tomatoes (well, not quite yet, perhaps), or with canned tomatoes, or sun-dried tomatoes. It’s hard to go wrong. And you can substitute the heck out of the ingredients, too.

Pasta with easy, meaty red sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 pound lean,bulk breakfast sausage, locally made if you can find it
  • Half a small onion, diced
  • A few (or more) cloves of garlic, minced
  • A generous handful of fresh mushrooms (if you like them), coarsely chopped
  • 2 cups oven-roasted tomatoes, OR any combination of
    • Ripe, meaty tomatoes, chopped coarsely

    • Sun-dried tomatoes, reconstituted in a little hot water (or if you’re using the kind that’s packed in oil, drained)
    • Canned, diced tomatoes. I like the low-salt ones
  • Handful of fresh basil, chopped (I skipped this, because I use a ton of basil in my oven-roasted tomatoes)
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • Pasta of your choice (I used rotini)
  • Good grated parmesan, not the tasteless stuff in the green can

Method

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, break up the sausage with a wooden spoon, and stir around a bit to start it browning. Stir in the onion, garlic and mushrooms, turn the heat down low, and put a lid on the pan (I don’t have a lid that fits my skillet, so I use a pizza pan).

Go away for 10 minutes or so. A pocket oven timer comes in handy if you’re prone to getting distracted answering your e-mail.

Come back, give everything a stir. The onions and garlic should be soft by now, the mushrooms looking cooked, and the sausage pretty well cooked through. Dump in tomatoes-of-your-choice. Add herbs. Stir, cover, and go away for another 10 minutes or so.

When you come back, put a big pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Taste the sauce (don’t burn your tongue!) and correct the seasoning if necessary. It should be starting to taste like sauce, rather than its component parts, but will probably be pretty watery. Remove the lid, give it another stir, turn the heat back up to medium and let it simmer and sputter while you cook the pasta according to the package directions.

By the time the pasta is done and drained, the sauce should have reduced down a bit and thickened some. If it’s not quite ready, no worry, just toss the noodles with a little olive oil so they don’t stick while you finish the sauce. When it looks and tastes ready, ladle it generously over the noodles, sprinkle with a little parmesan, and enjoy.

This takes all of about 30 minutes to prepare, and very little of that is spent at the stove. The quantity described here could serve 2-4 people, depending on how hungry they are, and if you need to feed more, just do what mom did: Cook more noodles.

May 13, 2008 at 8:42 pm Leave a comment


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