Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Category

My aunt and uncle were coming to visit today. We’d planned to go to lunch, but they had a late breakfast and were going to a birthday party after our visit, so I figured they probably wouldn’t need another big meal. So I figured I’d scavenge around the kitchen to see what I could come up with for snacks, just in case.

Last week, I saw a recipe for tzatziki chicken and pasta salad that really caught my attention. Even though I’m not usually a fan of pasta salads, I had some leftover chicken and I love the cool, creamy tartness of tzatziki. Just the word cucumber makes me feel better, cooler. In case you haven’t noticed — or maybe you live in the North Pole, in which case, congratulations, can I visit? — it’s freaking hot outside. Mother Nature has seriously dampened my zeal for kitchen work (notice I haven’t posted in a while), not to mention my appetite.

I took stock. I would have made the tzatziki salad, but I didn’t have any Greek yogurt and I really didn’t want to go to the store. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I never met a recipe I couldn’t change. My friend told me about some shrimp cakes she made once and gave me the recipe. I made them. Kind of. She asked me how they were and I said they were great, then told her what I’d changed. (Hey, sometimes you want shrimp cakes and don’t have… panko. Or avocado. Or cilantro. So I just used other stuff.) She looked at me thoughtfully with her head tilted a little. “Well, you didn’t really make the same thing at all!” Perhaps not. But it was tasty, I think. I did make the actual recipe a few weeks after that and it’s very good. So try it sometime.

Anyway. Back to the real story. So I decided to keep the pasta salad idea, use chicken, cukes and red onion. I wanted to add tomato and make my own dressing. Then I got a little creative. I added some roasted chick peas.

Those are an aside. You can make the salad without them, but I think they added a little something extra.

Let’s start with the pasta. I used penne rigate, because that’s what I had in the pantry. I also like it because it has ridges, which make the sauce/dressing stick to the noodles a little better.

Remember to salt the water. As a chef once told me, make it “as salty as the sea!” I cooked the whole pound of pasta. (Give it 9 minutes, then taste a noodle. You want it to have a little bite left, but not be crunchy. If it’s still a bit crunch, give it about 30 seconds more.) But I’d probably do only half next time. My salad is a little pasta heavy, veggie lite. Which I didn’t intend to happen. And turns out my family wasn’t that hungry at all, so… I’ll be eating this for quite a while now. Good thing it tastes good!

While the pasta cooks, make the dressing. Now I’m a pretty forthcoming sharer of my secrets, but even I hesitate to give everything away. But here goes. These are two of my secret weapons.

The salt doesn’t necessarily have to be coarse sea salt. In fact, this has a little trouble coming out the spout. It’s a store brand. I don’t remember if my previous box was coarse, but I think it was Morton’s.

For the dressing, we’ll start with about a half cup of mayo. Squeeze in a little lemon juice, then add some salt and pepper. Then add some of the minced lemon peel.

Mix it up and give it a taste. It should be tart and a little salty. Next I called on my stash of pesto from the freezer.

Thawed it in the microwave and added it a little at a time to the mayo.

I ended up adding the whole cube.

Time to cut up the veggies.

I always strip a little of the skin off the cuke. I like the contrast of the dark green of the skin and the pale green-white of the flesh. And while we’re talking about it, can I just say how beautiful red onion is? I couldn’t get a great photo of it, but the deep purply red makes me appreciate nature. Even cut up, it’s gorgeous.

Now that’s a LOT of red onion. So much that it made me cry a little. If it makes ME cry, then I know it’s a strong onion. It doesn’t usually bother me that much. One time, when my dad was visiting, he came in the front door while I was making French onion soup and he said, “Holy [crap]! Why are my eyes watering?!” I laughed. Mine weren’t watering at all. Sorry dad! (I added only half of that chopped onion to the pasta salad.)

Add all the chopped veggies and the chick peas to a large mixing bowl.

By now the pasta should be done. Drain it and rinse it under cold water to cool it off.

Add it to the bowl with the veggies.

Cut up some grilled chicken. I had this left over.

Add it to the pasta.

Add the dressing.

Mix it all up. Taste it and add salt and pepper if it needs it. I also added a little more lemon peel and juice.

Now, chill baby chill till you’re ready to serve.

Pasta Salad with Veggies, Chicken, Roasted Chickpeas and Pesto Dressing

  • 1/2 pound of penne rigate
  • 3 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 English cucumber, chopped
  • 1/4 large red onion, chopped
  • 1 cup roasted chick peas
  • 2 cups cubed cooked chicken
  • 1/2 cup mayo
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced lemon peel
  • 1/4 cup pesto

Cook the pasta in salted water for about 9 minutes. Check for doneness. If not quite al dente, boil 30 seconds more. When done, drain and rinse under cold water to cool off the pasta.

While the pasta cooks, make the dressing. In a small mixing bowl, add the mayo and squeeze lemon juice into the bowl, add some salt and pepper to taste and add the lemon peel. Mix well.

Add the chopped vegetables to a large mixing bowl. Add the roasted chick peas, then the cooked pasta and the chicken. Top with the dressing and mix until combined. Taste. Add salt, pepper, a little more minced lemon peel and juice if needed. Chill until ready to serve.


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Bring out the vodka

Sometimes I’m a lazy cook. I watch all these cooking shows where professional chefs stand at the stove and watch pots like it’s their job. They do that because it IS their job. I love being in the kitchen, but sometimes even I don’t want to spend two hours making a meal. That tends to equal a lot of dirty dishes, even when you clean up along the way.

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I like her concept — use few ingredients, but very good quality ones. I also like her because she came to the food industry later in life. She worked for the government, then bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons on kind of a whim. She had no experience in the food industry, but went on to make it her own. I respect that. I hope that could be me someday.

Yes, this is leading somewhere. Let me cut to the chase: I got this recipe for vodka sauce from Ina Garten’s show. Actually, to be fancy and correct, it’s called Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola and it’s served at Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton. I will probably never have it from there. One, because it’s in East Hampton. And two, because it’s a $22 pasta dish and I made it at home for significantly less. A box of pasta on sale? One dollar for eight servings. Now I’m not going to do all the math. I’m a word person after all. But even word people know that $22 for a plate of pasta is just too much. I’m not saying it’s not a good dish. But I can make it at home for about the same cost — or less — for eight servings, not one.

It’s easy, but takes a while to cook in the oven. You just throw some onions and garlic in a Dutch oven (I like to say throw, but I don’t actually throw it. It’s lovingly tossed at best.) with some olive oil.

Let it cook for a bit to soften, add some crushed red pepper flakes and some dried oregano. Stir and let it combine. Then, add a cup of vodka. (One for you, dear sauce. Then one for me. Cheers!)

Let it reduce by half.

This bring us to the San Marzano tomatoes. I used to buy these. I can’t figure out what “brand” they are. But they’re about $4 a can and you’ll find them in the Italian section of your supermarket. The ones in that link are $6. Here’s a secret I recently found. Some supermarket private labels have them too. And guess what? They cost less. Go figure. I got them at Kroger for $1.89 a can. These are with the other canned tomatoes and not in the Italian section. The original recipe doesn’t call for basil. But leave it.

Drain two cans of these tomatoes. (These are great for simple tomato sauce for pizza and pasta. Crush them into a pot, add some olive oil and salt and simmer for 20 minutes. Viola. That’s not even a recipe. And there’s so much more flavor than you get from a jarred sauce. I always keep at least one or two cans of these tomatoes in my pantry.)

These tomatoes also come in crushed form. Don’t buy the crushed ones. The whole tomatoes are the best quality ones. The imperfect ones are crushed and canned, labeled as (you guessed it), crushed. So crush them yourself. It’s fun. Just make sure to wear an apron or at least a shirt you won’t mind having squirts of tomato juice on. And if you pretend that you’re crushing someone’s head as you crush the tomatoes into the pot? Well, that’s your business. I feel like I’ve said that before. But it can’t be said too much.

Add 2 teaspoons of salt. And a pinch of pepper. I know it sounds like a lot of salt. But trust me. Add it. You will not be sorry. Salt gets a bad rap because of all the processed crap we eat. But you need the salt when you’re cooking. Experiment. Just the addition of the right amount of salt can make something ordinary taste so much better. I don’t mean dump salt over all your food after it’s cooked. No, no, no. It’s most important as you go.

Anyway, stir in the salt and pepper.

Put the lid on the Dutch oven and put it into the oven for an hour and a half. Yes, it’s a long wait for dinner. But I’m pretty much in love with anything that takes a few ingredients and just cooks by itself in the oven for a while. And BONUS… it makes your house smell delicious and tastes amazing. Like it took much more effort than it did. Plus it’s hands-off time. Which I completely adore. I can clean up, check Facebook, send a few texts, watch something on TV. Whatever you want. And all while the oven does the work.

And when you pull that pot out of then oven? Well, sometimes even word people can be rendered speechless. Especially when knocked almost breathless with a bite of food. And one that you made yourself. It’s very hard to impress myself. This sauce impresses the hell out of me.

See those “burned” bits around the edges? You want that to happen. It gives the sauce a smoky character. (That one in the middle is a basil leaf.)

So if you don’t want to have this for dinner, you could stop here and store the sauce till the next day or so. But if you have a few more minutes, let the sauce cool while you cook some pasta. I used penne this time, but I like to use rigatoni with this sauce.

When the sauce has cooled some, proceed to the blender. Also, go ahead and give it a taste. The roasted goodness of those tomatoes, onions will make your taste buds dance. Then the heat from the crushed red pepper will make your tongue buzz just a little bit.

Blend it till smooth and creamy, then return it to the pot.

Reheat the sauce, adding a cup of cream — heavy cream if you have it, but half and half will work too — and some dried oregano. Stir it and add half a cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

You’re now seconds from greatness. Stir in that cheese. Now, depending on how many servings you’re making, you can toss the pasta into the sauce or toss the sauce into the pasta. I was only doing a couple of servings, but I put the pasta into the sauce anyway. Next time, I’d do the opposite so the dish wouldn’t be quite so saucy. Learn from  your mistakes, right? This was a mistake I can definitely live with.

Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola

Adapted (just a little) from The Barefoot Contessa and Nick and Toni’s in the Hamptons.

  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 pound penne pasta
  • 4 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 1 cup heavy cream or half and half)
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 375.

Heat the olive oil in a large oven proof saute pan over medium heat, add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 minute more. Add the vodka and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half.

Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a sieve and crush them into the pan with your hands. Add 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. Drain and set aside.

Place the tomato mixture in a blender and puree in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency. Return to the pan.

Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons fresh oregano and enough heavy cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the pasta into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan and a sprinkle of fresh oregano on each plate.

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