Blame it on January...
I find motivation difficult this time of year and feel like I accomplish very little. January is the perfect time for projects; paint a room, organize, clean or plan the summer garden, right? But I don't. That may be because I tend to go full throttle during the holidays and I need an effortless January to even me out. I take a break from everything... even cooking and my beloved baking. But with time, that changes. This week I prepared several old favorites, but I also made, for the first time, this recipe for Baked Crusty Pasta Shells and Cauliflower that came across in an email from Food & Wine recently. It's fabulous on a cold, dark January night in Minnesota, and for those in my family that are eating less meat or none whatsoever. Anything made with salty capers, lemon zest and fresh ricotta is a winner, as far as I'm concerned. Yes... I'll be making Pasta Shells with Cauliflower again.
(NOTE) When purchasing the ingredients for this recipe, my cheesemonger suggested I cut back on the Fontina Val d'Aosta, which is pricey. I used half the amount that is shown in the original recipe below, and replaced the remaining 5 ounces with a container of pre-grated cheeses that included fontina in the mix. I had no complaint with doing that nor with the results. I loved this pasta.
Ina Garten | Food & Wine, November 2016, slightly adapted
• Kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 3/4 pound medium pasta shells
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 1/2 pounds cauliflower, cut into small florets (1 large head)
• 3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh sage leaves (I substituted 2 tablespoons rubbed sage)
• 2 tablespoons capers, drained
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
• 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
• 2 cups freshly grated Italian Fontina Val d'Aosta cheese (10 ounces with rind)... see NOTE above
• 1 cup (8 ounces) fresh ricotta
• 1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread flakes)
• 6 tablespoons freshly grated Italian Pecorino cheese
• 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.
2. Fill a large pot with water, add 1 tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, according to the instructions on package. Drain and pour into a very large bowl.
3. Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large (12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat, add half of the cauliflower in one layer and sauté for 5 to 6 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the florets are lightly browned and tender. Pour the cauliflower into the bowl with the pasta. Add 3 additional tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the remaining cauliflower. Cook until browned and tender; add to the bowl.
4. Add the sage, capers, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper to the bowl; stir gently to combine. Stir in the Fontina. Transfer half of the mixture to a 10 x 13 x 2-inch baking dish. Spoon rounded tablespoons of ricotta on the pasta and spoon the remaining pasta mixture on top. Combine the panko, Pecorino, parsley and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small bowl and sprinkle it evenly on top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until browned and crusty on top. Serve hot.
TAKE a LOOK:
During the holiday season, our big celebration has always been on New Year's Day. That is when my husband and I host our annual brunch; an event that now spans 30 years.
What I don't do very often, however, is plan an event right before Christmas. But a week ago, feeling like I had the holidays under control, I asked friends who are in our gourmet "supper club" if they would like to come over for an evening of appetizers and drinks. Amazingly, during this very busy time of the year, everyone was free!
I cooked and baked some of my favorites, and I have links for you below to all of the foods on my menu.
And the best part, for me anyway, was pulling out favorite serving pieces, stands, and vintage decorations... and sharing it all with family and friends.
• Tortellini Salad with Snow Peas
• Zucchini Galettes with Fresh Ricotta and Lemon
• Époisses, Ham and Apple Tart
• Rolled Vanilla Christmas Tree Cookies
• Vanilla Shortbread Cookies
• Macademia Shortbread Biscotti
• Sablés à l'Orange et Raisins
• French Canelés
• Chocolat Chaud
... assorted cheeses, olives, salami, crackers, roasted peppers and drinks were also served
TAKE a LOOK:
When I'm not home taking care of a 3 month old puppy, I'm traveling. I spent some time in the southwest visiting family and friends... all in different locations. We started out in Phoenix, followed by several days in Palm Springs. My husband's goal is to see all of the national parks in the U.S. Many of them he's already been to (many without me). But on this occasion I accompanied him to Joshua Tree and Sequoia National Parks.
Of the two parks, Joshua Tree was my favorite. The rock formations were amazing.....
No....................................................................I did not sleep in a tent
Plus, in Joshua Tree's favor... it is not 7000 feet above sea level as is Sequoia National. Those who know me well, know it is extremely difficult for me to be captive in a car driving up the side of a mountain. I act obnoxiously, I've been told. It's a trait I am not proud of, and I feel badly for anyone who has to put up with my behavior. But you know... that's just the way it is. I'm sure I have many other sterling qualities that compensate for my disappointing display on the mountain side...
I also didn't pack for Sequoia National Park. Before we left, I read the 90 degree forecasts for the desert and never imagined being cold, in a place that had just received 3 feet of snow. No winter coat packed. No boots. Nothing warm. But... it was beautiful.
After spending two days in the mountainous winter wonderland, we left Sequoia with a slow descent down the mountain (tire chains required) and headed south to warmth and a couple of days with my husband's relatives outside of L.A. The last leg of our journey took us to Tucson and a visit that was very special to me. We spent time with Ginny and Ron; friends we made when I was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute back in the 70's, when I was in the Fiber Department and Ron in Ceramics. It was a visit that never felt like we parted ways when school ended so many years ago.
The Broccoli and Shrimp Pasta recipe is my version of a beautiful meal made by Ron and enjoyed outdoors... something we won't be doing in Saint Paul fore another 3 months (if that soon). Serve with some really good bread and glasses of white wine!
RECIPE SERVES 3
• Broccoli florets, halved, from 1 head of broccoli
• 3/4 pound capellini (angel hair) pasta
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• Pinch of red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)
• 1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• Salt & freshly ground black pepper
• Lemon wedges, for serving
• Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1. Gently boil the broccoli florets in lightly salted water until just tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Drain and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Add the capellini and cook until al dente. Drain and reserve.
3. In the meantime, in a large sauté pan, heat a generous drizzle of olive oil. Add the broccoli and cook briefly over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and cook, adding more olive oil if necessary, until the garlic is fragrant. Add a sprinkling of salt and transfer broccoli to a bowl.
4. Add a little more olive oil to the pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp to the hot pan; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook the shrimp, turning once, until pink and opague. This should take approximately 3-5 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp.
5. Adjust the heat to low and add the reserved broccoli and drained pasta. Stir to combine and add an addition drizzle of oil. Divide the pasta between 3 bowls and serve. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice overs each serving and pass the Parmigiano Regginao.
TAKE a LOOK:
In my early twenties, I worked at a gourmet kitchen store with a woman who had just tasted olive oil for the first time on a trip to Greece. She told me she didn't like it at all. The flavor was "overwhelmingly strong", and emphasized the nastiness through a hard squint of her eyes. That was back in the early '70s, and olive oil wasn't a mainstream ingredient yet... at least at the Kansas City grocery stores I frequented and within my group of friends. I had never used olive oil, and after my co-worker's critique wasn't in any hurry to do so. The same imprint was made on my brain at some point to dislike Brussels Sprouts. It's a vegetable I don't remember my mother ever making. And hearing negative comments from others about Brussels Sprouts, I decided I probably would not care for this little cruciferous vegetable myself. No need to even try them. Fortunately, I have learned and changed much over the years. I don't let people influence me anymore. At least when it comes to food.
I finally cooked Brussels Sprouts for the first time about seven years ago. Since then, it's grown into a full-blown love affair. When I found this recipe for Spaghetti with Brussels Sprouts and Sausage Bread Crumbs, I made it immediately. Then I made it again, and again one more time, all in the span of two weeks. I absolutely love this pasta dish. The squeeze of fresh lemon juice just before serving is the crowning jewel. My husband, unfortunately, doesn't share my ability or desire to eat the same foods over and over again. What's up with that? He likes a dish, but is then ready to move on to something else. I, on the other hand, would be quite satisfied having this pasta once a week (at least).
+ adapted recipe from Food & Wine
recipe serves 4
• 1/2 pound spaghetti
• 1 pound Brussels Sprouts, cleaned and sliced
• 1/2 pound bulk pork sausage
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
• 2 to 3 scallion, white and light green parts sliced thin
• Salt and freshly ground pepper
• Good quality extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
• Fresh lemon juice
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a large pinch of salt and cook the pasta until al dente.
2. In the meantime... warm the olive oil in a medium sauté pan. Add the pork sausage and Brussels Sprouts to the pan. Over medium heat, cook the mixture until the the pork sausage is cooked through and beginning to brown. Add the panko and cook until crisp. Stir in the sliced scallion and season to taste with salt and freshly-ground pepper.
3. Drain the spaghetti and divide between four bowls. Drizzle each with some extra-virgin olive oil and top with the Brussels Sprouts and Sausage Breadcrumb mixture. Finish with a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and serve.
TAKE a LOOK:
Lately, I've been planning my days around very limited outdoor exposure. I dress the Frenchies in their winter coats and make a mad dash into the sub-zero air. Coaxing the dogs to do what they have to do as quickly as possible, we then run back inside. After an extremely short trip to visit family in southwest Iowa this past weekend (and to see the Wabash Wine Company's who-done-it mystery, "The More The Murderer" written by our friend Bill Danforth), we left sunny skies and highs temps predicted in the 50's, only to end up driving through white-out blizzard conditions by the time we reached the Minnesota border. Hard to believe that two years ago in January I was out riding my bike in record warmth. It's just crazy...
Because of the cold, I'm also limiting trips to the grocery. Many of our meals have not been planned ahead; I just buy anything that looks good and find a use for it once I'm back home. Fortunately, I happened to have all of the ingredients I needed for this Couscous Salad of Roasted Vegetables and Sun-Dried Tomatoes. It was delicious alongside baked salmon.
+ Couscous Salad of Roasted Vegetables and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
adapted recipe from Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentesana and Jérome Audureau
• 1 1/2 cups couscous
• 1/4 cup dried currants
• 1 1/2 cups boiled, unsalted water for the couscous
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 small eggplant cut into 1/2-inch cubes
• Kosher salt (for sweating the eggplant) and freshly ground pepper (for roasting the vegetables)
• 1 zucchini, diced fine
• 1 yellow squash, diced fine
• 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
• 1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch squares
• 1 red onion, diced fine
• 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
• 10 Marinated Sun-Dried Tomatoes, julienned
• 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted, then coarsely chopped
• 1/2 cup fresh basil, cut into thin strips (or PRESERVED BASIL)
1. Combine the couscous and currants in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water along with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over the couscous. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and steam the couscous in the hot liquid for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and fluff the couscous with a fork; set aside. PREHEAT OVEN to 450˚F.
2. In the meantime, place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with a thin coating of salt, about 1 tablespoon. Stir the eggplant gently and set aside for 20 minutes to "sweat" its bitterness.
3. Combine the zucchini and yellow squash in a medium bowl along with 1 minced garlic clove, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a grinding of pepper. Drizzle with 1 table of the olive oil and mix gently. Spread the vegetables onto a non-stick sheet pan and roast on the middle rack of the oven for about 8 to 10 minutes (stirring occasionally) or until just beginning to brown -- Do not overcook the vegetables or they will fall apart when tossed with the couscous. When finished roasting, add to the couscous.
4. Toss the bell pepper and onion, a minced garlic clove, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a grinding of pepper with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Spread onto the sheet pan and roast for 10 to 15 minutes (stirring occasionally) or just until the vegetables are beginning to blacken. Scrape vegetables into the bowl of couscous.
5. Over a sink, shake the colander to remove as much liquid as possible from the eggplant. Toss eggplant with remaining minced garlic, a grinding of pepper, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. It is not necessary to add any additional salt to the eggplant. Spread onto the sheet pan and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until eggplant browns and the flesh has softened. Scrape the eggplant mixture into the bowl of couscous and vegetables.
6. Add the balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, and basil to the couscous and stir very gently to combine. Serve at room temperature. Salad will keep for several days in the refrigerator.
TAKE a LOOK:
I amazed myself yesterday by making Spaghetti with Asparagus and Fried Egg for dinner. What amazed me was having the stamina to prepare dinner.
It was an absolutely glorious day (for a change) and all of my plans were set aside and replaced with a 25-mile bike ride around the lakes of Minneapolis -- stopping for a nice little lunch along the way. I'm sure most bikers wouldn't blink at riding 25-miles, but the distance I rode yesterday was a bit more than I usually attempt. On most rides I limit myself to around 15-miles -- three times a week. I imagined crashing on the sofa from exhaustion when I returned home, but I actually felt good! And even though I probably consumed a whole loaf of bread during my late afternoon lunch, I was hungry for dinner.
I made this pasta dish about a week ago and liked it enough to make it a second time for dinner last night. But then again, I like anything with an egg on top!
An alfresco dinner last night as the sun was beginning to set
• • • • • • • •
Spaghetti with Asparagus and Fried Egg
adapted recipe from the Chicago Tribune
• 1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed and cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
• Kosher or sea salt
• Freshly ground pepper
• 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional if needed
• 2 eggs
• 8 ounces spaghetti
• Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved or grated
* Freshly toasted bread crumbs
1. Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and add the asparagus. Cook until the pieces are almost tender, about 1 minute.
2. Remove the asparagus from the boiling water and wrap in a large dish towel; set aside. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook to package directions.
3. In a large skillet (cast iron if you have one) heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and add the reserved asparagus. Cook over medium heat for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until heated through and tender. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the asparagus to a large bowl and add the drained pasta. Drizzle with more olive oil and toss. Add more salt and pepper if needed.
5. Heat a small skillet over low heat; drizzle with some olive oil and add the eggs. Cook until set, but the yolks are still runny. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Plate the asparagus and pasta, sprinkle with toasted bread crumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and top with the fried egg.
TAKE a LOOK:
This Baked Pasta with Meatballs and Olives is a recipe I wouldn't necessarily make this time of year. It's a rather hearty meal that I prefer during cooler months. Usually, by now... by May, it's getting warmer and nice enough to be outdoors occasionally for dinner. By this time, I should be composing salads and wondering when the radishes will be big enough to pick and add to the greens. I should be purchasing strawberries at the grocery for a strawberry-rhubarb tart -- all things I had hoped to do while my family visited from Ohio for four days.
But we had yet another snow this past week. And although we were lucky here in St. Paul, Minnesota, not to receive snow that needed shoveling as many near-by communities did, our snow was mixed with a cold, constant rain that lasted for days. All of the meals I prepared for my family were baked in the oven. Nothing was grilled outdoors, and there was no sitting on the patio under warm spring sunshine. The way this year has gone so far, we may be eating hearty pasta dishes well into July...