A story of three failures

I

A few weeks ago I made spinach pasta on a Sunday night. It wasn’t a particularly complicated recipe, but it involved cooking the spinach, straining and chopping it, then adding it to the dough as you made it, resting the dough, rolling it out, and cooking it. Since that didn’t seem like a particularly hard project (many parts, but none difficult), I was also prepping a few other things for the week ahead.

But the evening got away from me, and by the time I was actually cooking the pasta it was much later than I expected (almost 9pm). Since fresh pasta is often promised to be a transcendent and simple meal, I hadn’t planned to dress it with more than some butter, olive oil, and Parmeggiano Reggiano. I tasted some from the pan and was instantly disappointed by the blandness. Where was my transcendent simplicity????????????

This failure exacerbated stresses that were building for the work-week, and led to me sobbing over my terrible pasta that I had put so much effort into. (While I was finishing crying, Will excavated some pesto from the freezer and started defrosting it to save my dinner, and therefore wins Husband-of-the-Year one hundred times over.)

II

The next week I wanted to try a simple (catching a theme here?) vegan soup that involved a vibrantly green and thick herb coconut broth, broccoli, snap peas, tofu, and rice. In the cookbook photo the author used black rice noodles, which were incredibly dramatic and contrasted beautifully with the green broth. The photo of this dish makes you feel cleansed and restored just from looking at it. Like you’ve achieved absolute purity and suddenly understand why vegans forego meat and are ready to give it up forever too.

My first failure was in the liquid. A high speed blender was called for to combine the coconut milk, broth, and herbs. I don’t own a $500 blender, and I figured my stick blender could stand in as it usually does for pureed soups. Since the coconut milk/broth/lemongrass mixture is supposed to steep off the stove I tried to use my stick blender directly in the bowl it was cooling in. After a small wave covered my counter, I switched to the food processor. No amount of time processing would yield the thick, uniformly green broth the photo. Instead I was left with a thin broth with flecks of cilantro throughout. Given I wasn’t using the right equipment to start I wasn’t too dissuaded.

The recipe notes said to serve it with rice noodles or rice, and I happened to have black rice! I cooked some up, made my meager broth, and added in the vegetables and tofu. When it was time to serve, the rice went into the bowl, and was topped by the soup. But I had not rinsed the rice thoroughly enough. What had been a passable green broth, was now the color of mud.

I’m not one to judge a meal by its looks. But the photo I had for comparison was just so beautiful, and I was staring down at a puddle. I hoped taste would change my mind, but what I was eating did not live up to my expectations. It was thin, herby, flat, and very……healthy tasting. Like something I should always eat, but would never want to. It tasted like how people who hate vegan food on principle expect vegan food to taste. (I make vegan food on the regular and it can be overwhelmingly delicious, but this was not one of those times.)

III

Last week I knew I had an especially long work-day ahead of me, so I planned a fool-proof and almost effortless meal: tortellini with pesto and roasted asparagus. I was NOT making the pasta this time (it came pre-made from Wegmans). The pesto would be the last from the stash in the freezer that I was reminded about when Will used it to save my previous pasta dinner. The asparagus would go in the oven at 425F with salt, pepper, and olive oil for 15 minutes.

I put the asparagus in the oven and put the water on to boil. I had a double pack of tortellini, but decided to cook both in case we needed extra meals later in the week. This was a total of eight servings of pasta, which is way more than I usually make, but figured it would be useful when I had to work over the weekend.

The water on to boil, and put asparagus went in the oven. I put about the same amount of water in the pot I use for a pound of pasta, and didn’t think twice about it. The tortellini was in two separate but attached packs, and when I put the first in the pot was almost full, but it seemed like more could fit in. Partway through the addition of the second pack the water came dangerously close to the top, and I was in trouble. I took out a measuring cup to remove some of the water, but couldn’t remove enough of it in time. the tortellini threatened to boil over, and I knew the rest couldn’t fit in the pan…but I tried anyways.

Had I never made pasta before? Did I not understand that doubling the amount of pasta you make means you should also double the size or number of vessels you cook them in?

It was too late in the game to criticize myself; I just had to fix the problem. Some water went into the kettle to boil quickly, and I moved some of the pasta into a small pot. The tortellini monster was subdued for the moment. Eventually everything was cooked but somehow not overcooked, and I returned to the glass of wine I had hurtfully ignored.

The asparagus, by the way, was perfect.

IV

At work I teach kids cooking classes. Cooking with children is always an adventure, and often times they are doing something for the first time ever with me as their guide: cracking an egg, using a knife, measuring the flour. I always leave room for error in these situations and tell them this: sometimes when we cook we get delicious food, sometimes delicious food and a lesson, and sometimes just the lesson. But no matter what, you walk away with something.

Pasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto

Pasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto - Vegetal MattersIt’s a good thing my sausage order didn’t come in this week. I planned on making this orecchiette with sausage and pesto, or maybe my eternal favorite, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. Without good sausage, neither seemed appealing, so instead I turned to the half a cauliflower in the fridge. Pesto still seemed like a good idea, but I used the perfectly serviceable greens already in the house (kale and parsley) in place of basil.

What resulted was the fastest dinner I’ve made all week (exactly 45 minutes). Pasta with nicely charred cauliflower and pesto that hits all the right notes of salt, grassy herbs, and richness from the pine nuts and olive oil. I keep pine nuts in my freezer for when pesto cravings strike (and to make this salad topping – so good!), and throw them straight from there into the food processor.

Pasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto - Vegetal MattersPasta with roasted cauliflower and kale pesto

Serves 6. Inspired by Two Red Bowls, pesto recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food.

  • ½ a large cauliflower, or 1 whole smaller one (I used half a giant one, that clocked in at 26 oz worth after the stem was removed)
  • 1 lb pasta (I used orecchiette, because it was either that or lasagna noodles from the pantry. Another short pasta like penne, zitti, or fusilli would be great.)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped kale
  • 1 tablespoon parsley (or more if you want)
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon (divided)

Preheat the oven to 425F. Cut the cauliflower into small florets about the size of your pasta. Toss in 1 tablespoon olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper, and spread out on 2 baking sheets. This may seem like one extra pan to clean (and it is), but it is needed for truly crisped and not just steamed cauliflower. Roast the cauliflower for 10 minutes, and then toss it. If your pieces are very small check again after 5 minutes. Mine were about an inch long and done after 10 more minutes.

When you put the cauliflower in the over, put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

While your water is coming up to temp, make your pesto. Using a food processor start the blade running and drop in the garlic. When you stop hearing it bounce around it will be fully chopped. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the salt, kale, parsley, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. Pulse until they are uniformly combined, then run the machine and stream in the olive oil. Taste and adjust if needed.

When your water boils add the pasta and cook according to the directions for your particular shape (or, set the timer for 7 minutes and taste every minute after for done-ness). Before draining the pasta reserve a small cup-full of the water. Drain, then return the pasta to the pot. Add in the roasted cauliflower, pesto, and two tablespoons of the cooking water. Stir to combine, and if it seems a little dry add another tablespoon of water.

Serve with a bit of extra parm grated on top and a sprinkle of parsley.

Last Week I Cooked…

Last week I cooked - Vegetal MattersNow Will no longer asks what is for dinner, but instead asks what version of eggplant and tomatoes we are going to eat. The season for my favorite vegetables is almost over, but the list of recipes to try them in is never ending.

Spicy fried chicken sandwich. Last weekend was full of vegetables, and I started the week with a craving for fried chicken. I only brined the chicken for about an hour after work, and it was still plenty flavorful. The lettuce was replaced with cabbage, and I used a lot less oil to fry them. I had no trouble with sticking, but they did take longer to be fully cooked through.

Peach and tomato salad. I wanted this to be a sweet counterpoint to the spicy chicken sandwiches so I left out the chili flakes. Under any other circumstances keep them in though, because the bit of spice in this salad may be my favorite part.

Eggplant parmesan pizza with crispy capers (pictured above). There is no question that this was the best thing I made this week. I did the 9 hour version of the dough and left it on the counter for the day. I returned from work almost two hours later than normal cursing myself for planning pizza, but it came together quickly and was worth every step. Admittedly I didn’t make my own tomato sauce so that sped up the process. Eggplant pizza on its own may not seem that exciting, but the crisp capers add a briney saltiness and the garlic oil at the end takes it over the top.

Last week I cooked - Vegetal MattersSummer tomato lentils. As a huge surprise to everyone I added some eggplant to this dish. I roasted chopped regular sized tomatoes and eggplant with some za’atar and added them to the cooked lentils and dressing. All was served over some kale tossed in the same dressing and left to sit for a bit.

Pasta with eggplant and tomato. Inviting over dinner guests without an actual dinner plan and not going grocery shopping made for an excellent opportunity to try a simple recipe that had been on my list all summer. It’s hard to go wrong with fried eggplant, fresh tomato sauce and basil. I used parmigiano reggiano instead of the salted ricotta and was very happy.

Tuscan kale. I want to make this recipe exactly as written, but this time around just used it as inspiration. I sauteed half an onion, then added a lot of kale to the pan with 3 cloves of minced garlic, and covered the pan. After a few minutes I stirred everything up and replaced the cover, then salted before serving.

Zucchini Carbonara

Zucchini Carbonara - Vegetal MattersJamie at Home has been on my cookbook shelf for close to five years now. It moved to Seattle and back, and has survived multiple collection cullings. I can’t say I like the cover much, but it does have a nice feel to it both in texture and heft. As it should be with any book, the real joy is inside. The photography is incredible, with so many garden and produce beauty shots in addition to the recipe photos. The book is arranged by season, and within each season section are chapters on specific fruit, veg, or meats available during that time (so the spring section is asparagus, eggs, lamb, and rhubarb). At the end of each chapter there are tips for growing the produce or acquiring the meat sustainably. I like that there are whole chapters focusing on humble ingredients like lettuce or onions. So many of the recipes I’ve made from this have become yearly staples, like the sweet cherry tomato and sausage bake and steak, Guinness, and cheese pie, both recipes that create almost unbelievable flavor out of very simple ingredients.

Zucchini Carbonara - Vegetal Matters

The zucchini chapter has three recipes in it, and I’m sure the others are very nice but I have’t gotten around to making them since I just repeat the zucchini carbonara. Yes, bacon, egg, and cheese with pasta is a bit indulgent, but there is also a lot of squash piled in there as well. Oliver’s directions are usually a bit vague (a handful of this, pinch of that), but every time I make it I think this recipe needs a little more guidance. Maybe my personal zucchini scale is off, but if I used the 6 medium he calls for I would have ended up using almost 5 pounds worth. And while 12 slices of pancetta would probably be appropriate, 12 slices of regular American (streaky) bacon was going to be about a full pound for me, which was just too indulgent. What follows is still a lush recipe (it is cabonara after all, and if it’s not rich you’re not doing it right), with just the right balance of herbs and veg in a creamy sauce. I hope there are still zucchini and summer squash around you, they are on their way out in MA but I’ve still seen some around this past week.

Zucchini and Summer Squash Carbonara

Adapted from Jamie Oliver

  • 2 pounds mixed summer squash like zucchini, yellow summer squash, and pattypan
  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • ½ pound of bacon
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper

Fill a large pot with water and set to boil. Whisk the cream with the 2 eggs and shredded parmesan, season with salt and pepper, and set aside. Remove the leaves from the thyme sprigs.

Slice the bacon into ¼ pieces and put in a very large pan over medium heat. While the bacon starts to render chop the squash into quarters lengthwise and then into ¼ slices. When the bacon is almost to your crispness liking, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon (it will keep cooking a bit more). Drain all but a tablespoon of fat from the pan, reserving the rest in a bowl separate from the bacon. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and add enough sliced zucchini to cover the bottom of the pan, but don’t crowd them. Season with salt and pepper and allow the squash to cook for about 7 minutes total, allowing them to start browning. When that batch is done remove the squash from the pan into a bowl, return the pan to the heat, add another tablespoon of bacon fat, squash to fill the pan, salt, and pepper, and cook until they start to brown. Repeat until all the squash is cooked.

When the pasta water boils, salt it liberally and then add the pasta. I start checking for doneness around 7 minutes by tasting for al dente. Reserve a ladle-full of the pasta cooking water and then drain.

When the last batch of squash is finished, turn off the heat and add the rest of the cooked squash back to the pan along with the bacon and thyme leaves.  Add the pasta to the pan as well and stir everything to combine. Add about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid and your egg-cream-cheese mixture to the pan. Toss everything to coat in the sauce. It is really important to do this off the heat once the squash has cooked for a minute, so you don’t end up with scrambled egg sauce (though it’s really not the end of the world if you do, just not the prettiest sauce). If you like the sauce a little looser, add more of the reserved pasta water. Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like.

 

RAMP IT UP

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I AM rAMPED. About ramps of course. Because what is more exciting than perennial wild onions?!?!?! Ramps are making their way onto more and more plates, and have a fleeting season since most of them are foraged. I started looking for them around Worcester at the beginning of May, but they were no where to be found at any grocery stores or farm stands in the area. Luckily I have some Vermont connections who were not only willing to buy me ramps, but transport them all the way down here (don’t worry, the trip was already planned, the ramps just jumped on for the ride). I was inspired by this Ramp Carbonara, but adapted it to reflect my fridge contents. The ramps were all I hoped for, the bulbs had a nice garlicky sweetness, but they softened far faster than leeks. The tops tasted a lot like garlic scapes, but had a texture more like spinach than scallions. Hopefully by this time next year I’ll have found a local spot to forage my own.

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Spaghetti with Ramps, Mushrooms, and Spicy Sausage

  • 1 lb ramps
  • 1/2 lb mushrooms (I used winecap, grown by a friend!), thinly sliced
  • 1/2 lb spicy Italian sausage
  • 1 lb spaghetti or other pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmegiano Reggiano, or other hard cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Put a pot of water on to boil. Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Remove the hairy ends from the ramps. Separate the bulbs from the leafy tops and thinly slice them. Then slice the leafy tops into 1″ strips.

If the sausage is in casings remove them and add to the frying pan. Break up the larger chunks and cook through, about 7 minutes. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat. Add in the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes until they are browned, then remove from the pan and put with the sausage.

Salt the pasta water and add the spaghetti to cook.

The mushrooms likely absorbed the fat left in the pan, so heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add in just the ramp bulbs and saute for 7-8 minutes, until they are soft and start to take on a bit of color. Add the ramp tops to the pan and saute a few minutes more until they are wilted.

Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add in the sausage and mushrooms along with the ramps, cheese, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Taste, and adjust for salt, pepper, and red pepper as needed. If the pasta seems dry, add a bit more olive oil.

Further reading (updated 6/5/14): Why There’s A Black Market For Ramps In Quebec