Pasta alla Amatriciana

Pasta with cheese!

It was a long three weeks of traveling on the East Coast, but I’m finally back in California just in time to experience a heat wave of 80 degree weather and perfectly clear blue skies.  As much as traveling for work can be exhausting, I was very grateful to stay with friends or family during a vast majority of the trip.  I am doubly grateful that the people I visited know how to cook, because there was an outpouring of some of the most delicious homemade food I’ve had in a long time.  There were mushroom ravioli with mushroom tomato sauce and Parmesan, a ball of fresh mozzarella, and finally pasta alla Amatriciana.  This last dish I watched my Italian friend cook towards the end of my trip and thought I would try my hand at it when I got home.  The ingredients list is short and the preparation is fairly simple for such a phenomenally delicious dish.  But what did you expect when bacon and Pecorino Romano are involved?

Pan of pasta

Pasta alla Amatriciana
(serves 2)
1 recipe tomato sauce (see below)
Pasta for two people (such as spaghetti)
Pecorino romano, grated, to serve

1. Make the sauce (see instructions below).

2. Cook the pasta in salted water until it is al dente and drain.

3. Mix the sauce in with the pasta and stir to coat.  Pass a grater and the Pecorino Romano around the table so everyone can cheese their pasta – just remember the cheese is an addition, not the focus (that would be the tomato sauce with bacon!).

Sauce
Olive oil
1/2 white onion, chopped
5 slices bacon, cut into pieces, large chunks of fat removed
4 medium to large tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt

1. Cook the onions in a drizzle of olive oil in tall-sided skillet with a bit of water.

2.  While the onions cook, chop the bacon.  Then peel and de-stem the tomatoes, and chop roughly.

3. When the onion is mostly cooked (soft, but not browned), add the bacon and a bit more water.

4. When the bacon is cooked, add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and a sprinkle of salt.  Stir the sauce and then cover the skillet and cook on low to medium heat until the tomato has broken down.  The sauce will have chunks of tomato, but otherwise should taste like cooked tomato sauce with most of the water evaporated.

Pasta close-up

Pasta with Leeks and Parmesan

Yet another shamefully easy recipe from In Late Winter We Ate Pears, but what can I say, I seem to be addicted.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to cook leeks until they’re sweet, soft, and melty and then to top them with cheese and pasta, because who are we kidding, the pasta is just an excuse to eat the rest of the dish.  But it didn’t occur to me, and now I can’t help but think of all the leek-eating I’ve missed out on, and I’m more than a little crazed to catch up.  The hard part of this dish is getting parmesan that tastes good.  I have two answers, neither of which is very sustainable (and please let me know if you have any suggestions here): Whole Foods expensive parmesan from Italy that tastes amazing OR send your boyfriend to Italy “for work” and have him import it for you.  Unfortunately the second method relies on your significant other (or even a distant acquaintance) finding a conference in Italy to attend, which problem I’ve solved for the immediate future by being sent to a conference in Italy myself this summer.  This is only a temporary fix, however, and come September I have no doubt we will be out of parmesan again.  Cheese-god help us.

Pasta with Leeks and Parmesan
4 leeks (1 inch in diameter)
2 tablespoons butter or less if you’re careful not to let the leeks burn
1/2 pound of pasta
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Put some water on to boil for the pasta.  Then wash the leeks well.  My favorite method of leek-washing is to cut off the bottom and green leaves of a leek and then to slice half-way through it length-wise to open up “sheets” of leek-flesh.  You can now rinse between the leek sheets to get out that tricksy dirt.  Keeping the leek-sheets as together as possible, cut the leeks into coin-shaped pieces or whatever is easiest.  Melt the butter in a sauce pan and let the leeks cook, covered and with a bit of salt and pepper, for about 8 minutes or until extremely soft and delicious-smelling.  Once done, let the leeks sit in their pot with the lid on to keep them warm while you cook the pasta.  When the pasta water is at a rolling boil, add a good amount of salt to the water (maybe a teaspoon or two for a medium-sized pot) and then add the pasta and cook for the amount of time indicated on the pasta bag/box.  When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the leeks, mixing carefully to coat.  If the pasta seems too dry, add a drizzle of olive oil.  Add the parmesan and stir again.  Serve with perhaps a bit more parmesan on top and add salt and pepper to taste.

We eat other things, too.  Sometimes they involve Thai curry, which I adore eating as a soup with lots of vegetables–especially a couple months ago when I was so tired of root vegetables that I could have shot all the ones in my fridge if I weren’t so darn hungry.  I finally tried something else with Thai curry, which was to make a sauce for left-over baked fish.  I’ve tried a few times to write a post on making something to this effect, but since I never measure anything, it never goes well; the end result is a list of ingredients to be added in some order in arbitrary amounts: that is, the worst kind of recipe for someone who’s never made Thai curry before.

We’ve also been enjoying sugar toppings on muffins based loosely on these and these.

Epic Macaroni and Cheese (With Veggies of Course!)

This was a potential experiment that I only followed up on because the host of movie night said he liked broccoli.  But boy am I glad I did!  Peter did most of the work while I was busy de-antifying the house (also called cleaning by other people who don’t have the occasional attack of tiny black specks).  I came into the kitchen just in time to pulverize a couple things in the food processor and put the pretty colored veggies together… my timing was perfect!  If you don’t already follow 101 Cookbooks, I encourage you to stop by, if only for the version of this recipe I used (originally from Hungry? The innocent recipe book for filling your family with good stuff by Anna Jones, Vanessa Hattersley, and innocent).  Not only does the food blog feature delicious recipes focusing on whole grains and vegetables, but Heidi sometimes posts “Favorites Lists” of random links she likes, keeping me thoroughly entertained for entire evenings of internet surfing.

Epic Macaroni and Cheese Featuring Broccoli, Basil, Cherry Tomatoes, and Winter Squash in a Sauce of Cheesy Goodness
1 winter squash (kabocha or butternut… acorns are a pain to peel), peeled and cubed
3 cups whole wheat pasta, curlicue or macaroni shaped
2 slices toasted bread
1 bunch basil leaves
Olive oil
1/2 medium head of broccoli, roughly chopped (to fit in food processor)
4 tablespoons sour cream
1 heaping handful orange cherry tomatoes
1 3/4 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 3/4 cups grated gouda cheese
Salt
This has many steps, so I’m gonna break it down.  But start by preheating the oven to 400 degrees F.
1) Mix cubed winter squash with olive oil and salt and bake on a baking tray for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through.
2) Cook the pasta until al dente (the pasta will cook a tiny bit more when the whole casserole is baked).  Drain the pasta and mix with a bit of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water for later use.
3) Make the topping: in a food processor pulverize the toasted bread, half the basil leaves, the broccoli, and a generous drizzle olive oil until pieces are crumb-sized.
4) Start the sauce for the macaroni and cheese: in a food processor pulverize the cherry tomatoes and the other half of the basil until the tomatoes are just broken up.  Mix with sour cream and the cheese.
5) Mix the pasta, sauce, and squash: mix the pasta with the tomato-cheese sauce from step (4). Add enough of the pasta cooking water for the sauce to be the consistency of cream (the final bake will allow the pasta to soak up more liquid). Add the baked winter squash. Add salt!
6) Assemble the casserole: put the pasta/sauce mixture into the desired oiled baking dish. Top with the broccoli-basil-bread topping.  Optional: top with additional halved cherry tomatoes.
7) Bake the casserole for 20-30 minutes.

Lasagna with Ricotta and Roasted Summer Vegetables

I’ve been meaning to make lasagna for a while, but it tends to take forever to put together.  Tonight we had a special treat though: Peter’s brother visiting from the Bay Area.  His brother is a vegetarian, and I thought of nothing better to make him than one of my favorite vegetarian dishes: lasagna with ricotta and any vegetables lying around the kitchen.  After a long day walking in down town, they came home and entertained me as I spent the next hour and a half putting this lasagna together.  The last stage where you assemble the lasagna is always so rewarding, so I thought I’d take a photograph of each layer (see the alt-text for descriptions):

 Lasagna with Ricotta and Roasted Summer Vegetables
6-8 wide lasagna noodles (or more if you intend to make more pasta layers)
1 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1 15 ounce container of ricotta cheese
1 bag fresh spinach
1+ medium yellow onion
1 egg
1 large summer squash, cut into 1/4 inch-thick circles
1 large globe eggplant, cut into 1/4 inch-thick circles
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1/2 – 2/3 cup grated melty cheese (we used cheddar this time)
There are a lot of things to do, so I will describe each part individually.
Tomato Sauce:  Pour the crushed tomatoes into a non-reactive pot, along with a 1/2 cup of water (I use it to get all the tomato out of the can), a bit of diced onion or garlic, two bay leaves, oregano (somehow I didn’t have any around… silly me), salt, and pepper.  Let the sauce simmer on low heat while you do everything else, but don’t forget to stir it every once in a while.  If you forget about it and it cooks down too much, just add more water.  I’m sure a jar of good pre-made pasta sauce would be an easy alternative.

Ricotta Filling:  Dice the 1 onion and cook in olive oil until tender.  Wash the spinach leaves well (no one likes grit in their lasagna) and steam until just tender.  Mix the onion and spinach with the ricotta and season well with salt and pepper.  Add the egg and mix well again.
Roasted Vegetables:  If using Japanese eggplants in place of the globe eggplant, no salting prep work is required.  If using globe eggplants, though, I usually sprinkle them liberally with salt and let them sit for 20 minutes.  Then I wash them thoroughly to get rid of most of the salt, and continue on.  Mix the sliced summer squash with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Then add the eggplants and mix them around to cover them in a bit of olive oil.  Eggplants have an uncanny ability to soak up massive amounts of oil, so beware!  Since the eggplants will be baked with a cheese mixture and tomato sauce, I don’t find it necessary to use much oil in the roasting process.  Spread the vegetables on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes at 350 or 400 degrees F.  Then turn the vegetables over and bake for another 10 minutes or so.  If you’re in a hurry and have lots of frying pans, you could just fry the vegetables, but roasting them is less hands-on work.

Pasta:  Boil a large pot of water with about 1 tablespoon of salt.  When the water is boiling, add the lasagna noodles and cook as directed on the box.  If they’re slightly undercooked, that’s alright, as they will cook more when the lasagna bakes.  It is important to separate the noodles and stack them on a plate as soon as they are cool enough to touch so that they don’t stick together and don’t tear apart (a drizzle of olive oil is very useful here).  Find the nicest noodles to put at the bottom of the pile, as these will become the top layer of the lasagna.
Assembling the lasagna:  This is the best part!  See the above series of photos for a picture guide.  Lightly oil a baking dish with olive oil.  Put a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom, then the first layer of pasta.  Next, add layers of roasted eggplant slices, the ricotta mixture, the roasted summer squash slices, and finally a thin layer of tomato sauce, before adding another layer of pasta.  My layers are always quite thick and I don’t use much pasta (I should just admit that for me lasagna is really more about the cheese, vegetable, and tomato sauce mixture).  Make as many of these sets of layers as will fit in the pan and with the available ingredients (I managed to get two sets).  For the top of the lasagna, finish with a layer of pasta.  Lightly spread a drizzle of olive oil over the noodles to keep them from getting too hard while baking.  Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and finally top with a layer of the grated cheese.  Bake the lasagna, uncovered, for about 30-40 minutes, until the cheese is starting to brown in places.  Let the lasagna cool just a little bit before digging in.


Tomato Salad with Orange & Mint Meatball Pasta

I was not a fan of touching raw meat before I lived with Peter.  Raw meat was so scary that I cooked almost exclusively vegetarian meals, but as you might be thinking, meat is Peter’s fourth favorite thing, and while he ate mostly vegetarian while living with JI, he didn’t relish surviving graduate school without the occasional roast, steak, or burger.  I started out slow: already prepared chicken breasts.  Then there was the epic first WHOLE roasted chicken.  And for some reason I agreed to try making a pot roast sometime after that.  Let’s just say things have gotten so out of control that I finally made my first ground meat dish tonight: meatballs with orange and mint.  And this involved squeezing and mixing the raw meat with my bare fingers… uck.  I must admit, however, that the finished product was well-worth any trauma the ground beef may have caused.

Pasta with Orange & Mint Meatballs — From In Late Winter We Ate Pears
(serves 2 with many meatballs left over)

Orange and Mint Meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup orange zest
2 eggs
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/8-1/4 cup minced fresh mint
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1-2 oranges
Olive oil for cooking meatballs
Mix beef, bread crumbs, orange zest, eggs, parsley, mint, salt, and pepper in a bowl until well-combined.  This is best done with bare hands so that you can tell when everything is mixed uniformly into the ground beef.  Shape the meatball mixture into small meatballs (the diameter of a dime or quarter, but I found it hard to shape them as small as a dime) and put them on a plate in preparation for cooking.  Brown the meatballs on both sides in a lightly oiled skillet; they should be cooked through at this point.  Transfer the meatballs to a stainless steel or glass pot with as little of their oil as possible and cook them with the orange juice just to produce a nice glaze.  Once the orange juice has thickened and been almost completely reduced, transfer the meatballs to a plate to drain or just cool.  Wipe out the skillet and pot before cooking the next batch.

Pasta:
2 portions spaghetti (one portion is a bundle about the thickness of a nickel)
Salt
Parmesan cheese
Minced parsley and orange slices for garnish
Cook pasta in heavily salted water until cooked al dente.  Mix pasta with the meatballs and Parmesan cheese.  Add a drizzle of olive oil if the pasta seems too dry.  Garnish plates of pasta with parsley and orange slices.

Tomato Salad with Spring Hill Goat White Cheddar Cheese
(serves half a person, so double or triple accordingly)
1 heirloom tomato (or any delicious tomato)
Slices of Spring Hill Goat White Cheddar Cheese or other very strong flavored cheese
Basil leaves
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Slice tomato in large slices.  Drizzle olive oil over tomato slices and then season tomato with salt and pepper.  Top with cheese and basil leaves.

The possibilities for tomato salads are endless.  They work with almost any kind of cheese, basil, vinegar, olive oil, onion, or avocado combination.  I only include a recipe for one version here to remind you that it exists, and also to encourage you to try the goat white cheddar.