Pasta Favorites, New and Old

31 01 2010

It seems like a good time to get back to basics.  I’m talking about simple, quick, easy weeknight meals.  Nick’s been requesting pasta lately, and I am more than happy to oblige.  People have been telling me to make pasta alla’amatriciana forever, but I have only just now gotten around to it, thanks in part to a reminder from The Hungry Dog.  I mean, bacon in spicy tomato sauce?  Sign me up!  I only wonder why it’s taken me so long to get around to making this, because if there’s a fantastic meal to come out of the pantry, it’s this one.

Pasta alla'amatriciana

So that’s the new favorite.  Here’s what you do:  cook some diced bacon, not to the point of crispness, but until most of the fat has rendered out.  Add some chopped onions, soften, add garlic and red pepper flakes, then a can of tomatoes in tomato purée.  Simmer, salt (but not too much – bacon can be salty) and pepper, toss with pasta (in this case, whole wheat penne) and freshly grated cheese (Here I used Grana Padano, but would normally have Parmigiano-Reggiano).  Done.

As for the old favorite, this is something I used to whip up almost every other Friday night, especially when our Italian market in Dallas burned down and set up temporary shop in the liquor store across from one of our favorite bars.  It was super convenient to have a couple of happy hour beers, then go pick up some fresh raviolis (porcini being the favorite) and whatever tomato products our pantry was lacking before inviting a handful of friends back to the house and cooking up a big pot of tomato cream sauce for those scrumptious raviolis.

Tomato sauce, in process.

The trick is this: after softening/slightly caramelizing some diced onion in olive oil with salt, red pepper flakes, and fresh thyme or dried oregano, throw in a couple spoonsful (spoonfuls?) of tomato paste, and let it cook, stirring frequently, until it gets browned and roasty smelling.  That’s when you deglaze with red wine, balsamic vinegar, chicken stock, or even water.  Scrape up the delicious fond from the bottom of the pot and add a can or two (depending on how many people you’re feeding) of tomatoes, pre-diced or whole, diced by hand.  Simmer while the raviolis cook, and just before serving, stir in an ounce or two of cream.

Porcini raviolis and quick tomato cream sauce

It turns out that even slight changes like switching dried pasta for filled, fresh pasta, or switching out bacon for cream in the tomato sauce, make having pasta for dinner two nights in a row not only viable, but desirable.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Le Cumin et Les Noix de Pecan

19 10 2009

That’s cumin and pecans for any strict Anglophones out there.  Two decidedly not-French ingredients.  But they are the two featured ingredients for Foodie Fights Battle #14, in which I was chosen to participate.  Cumin, at least, is fairly easy to come by around here, but pecans are horrendously expensive.  Lucky for me, Nick recently brought back a bag full of goodies from Trader Joe’s, including some pecan halves.  Game on!

Hot, salty nuts

At first it felt a little weird trying to construct a dish based around a spice and a garnish; but then I have been known to build an outfit around a pair of shoes, which I guess would be the sartorial equivalent.  So… cumin and pecans.  Cumin makes me think of Mexican or Indian food, while pecans are 100% americana.  I had a number of ideas floating around – curried carrots on cumin rice, cumin-pecan kettle corn – none of them really gelling into something I wanted to get off my butt and cook.  Then I remembered that it’s sweet potato season.

sweet potatoes, pre-roast

And suddenly I had to have something Thanksgiving-y.  The cumin would be an unusual twist, but I thought I could make it work.  Smoky bacon (what else?) and sweet maple syrup provided the catalysts that ended up tying it all together.  The pieces of the puzzle fell together while I was at work, so I quickly scribbled “Cumin-Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes w/ Sweet + Spicy Pecans   Bacon!” on a torn-off scrap of paper, very excited to buy some sweet potatoes at the Asian market and make this dish happen.

Which it did, Saturday night.  We had some guests for dinner, so I made the sweet-spicy-salty pecans first, appropriate for nibbling in between Wii bowling games.  Honestly, the pecans by themselves were a huge hit, and I got repeated requests for the technique.  I could have left it at that, but why would I, when I could use the pecans to top cumin- and bacon-scented sweet potatoes?  I definitely wanted to use whole cumin seeds, but I didn’t want them to be too crunchy, so I tossed them with the potatoes, some chopped onion, blanched lardons, and a little oil before covering the baking dish with foil and baking/steaming it for 30 minutes.  However, steamed sweet potatoes don’t excite me nearly as much as roasted ones, so after the initial half hour, I took off the foil, drizzled on a vinaigrette made with maple syrup and apple cider vinegar, and continued roasting for another hour while I prepared the rest of the meal: duck breasts and spinach wilted in the duck fat.

Cumin-Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Sweet and Salty Spiced Pecans

It was a great dinner for a chilly autumn night, and I can definitely see this one on the holiday table.

The battle starts tomorrow (Tuesday, October 20).  I’d love it if you headed over to Foodie Fights and voted for me.  It should be worth checking out, even if you ultimately decide I didn’t earn your vote – I haven’t seen the other entries yet, so I don’t know what I’m up against.  The winner will be announced on Thursday, so get your votes in!

Click through for the recipe, which I heartily encourage you to try.

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Corn Chowdah

12 09 2009

Corn showed up in the CSA panier a couple of weeks ago.  I was excited and wary.  Excited because yay, corn!  Wary because the few ears of cob corn I’ve had in France have been unpalatably starchy.  So before even tasting it I devised a plan.  Corn chowder.  That way I could extract the flavor from the cobs, while the chopped, cooked kernels would have less of a chance to be offensive when combined in a creamy soup with bacon and potatoes.  (How do you make anything taste good?  Bacon and potatoes.)

Corned cream

Fortunately, when I cut the corn kernels from the cob and tasted one, I was rewarded with the crisp crunch of sweet corn.  Hooray!  No animal feed for us tonight!  I reserved the kernels for later and put the halved cobs in a pot with a little cream (okay, a lot of cream), a bay leaf,  and a few sprigs of thyme harvested from my windowbox garden.  I brought it up to a simmer, then covered it and lowered the heat so the cobs and herbs could really infuse the cream with their flavors.

The start of a delicious chowder

As we all know, a good chowder always starts with bacon.  Potatoes are another must-have.  Keeping it simple, I rendered some lardons while dicing potatoes, then threw the potatoes on top of the bacon and tossed to coat the cubes of potato in bacon fat.  I cooked them like that for a few minutes, then added a little white wine and water to cover.  Salt, pepper, and 10 minutes of simmering later, the potatoes were tender and tasty.  Time to strain the corned cream into the pot and add the reserved corn kernels.  Back up to a simmer for another couple of minutes to heat the corn through, and dinner was good to go.

Summery, yet hearty soup

Simple, classic, and great for those first few chilly nights of the changing season.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Regional French Cuisine: Bretagne: Soupe au Sarrasin et au Lard

27 04 2009

I’ll get back to my coverage of Grande Bretagne in a few days, but now it’s time for the end-of-the-month outpouring of regional France posts, Bretagne-style.  Wondering what I could cook from Brittany that wasn’t crêpes, I turned once again to Le Tout Robuchon.  There is a section near the back of the book with regional recipes, and sure enough, there was a Breton recipe for buckwheat and bacon soup!

Mise en Place for Breton Buckwheat soup

Luckily, I still have a stockpile (ha!) in my freezer, from the stock-making extravaganza of several weeks ago.  The only “specialty” ingredient I had to seek out was the buckwheat flour, farine de sarrasin en français.  And it wasn’t hard to find.  It’s funny, now that I’m looking for them, I see Breton products everywhere!  Apple juice and cider, butter, buttermilk, sea salt, and my favorite, salted butter caramels.  It seems that many basic, everyday ingredients hail from this sometimes remote-seeming region of The France.  (Nick and I have started referring to this country with a direct translation of its name in the native tongue.)  Now that I think about it, even the majority of the shallots I buy come from Bretagne!

[I was going to put in yet another gratuitous photo of lardons and shallots sweating in a pan, but stupid WordPress doesn’t seem to want to upload it right now, so I’m moving on.  Besides, if you’ve read this blog before, you probably have some idea what that looks like.]

Once the lardons had cooked a bit and given up some of their delicious fat, I covered them in chicken stock and added bouquet garni ingredients: a stalk of celery, a few stems of parsley, sprigs of thyme, and a bay leaf.  I seasoned with a twist of black pepper and a quick grating of nutmeg, and brought the pot up to a simmer.

Simmering away...

While that was going on, I took Robuchon’s serving suggestion of croutons browned in lard to heart.  In another fortunate coincidence, Nick had just brought home that very afternoon a loaf of what he dubbed “possibly the worst bread I’ve had in Paris.”  We decided that cubing it up and frying it in lard could only improve matters (though really, when does it not?).  Of course I have lard on hand at all times.  Doesn’t everyone?

lardcroutons-a

Meanwhile, the soup was bubbling away.  I fished out the now soggy herbs and prepared to stir in the slurry composed of buckwheat flour and more stock.

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Regional French Cuisine: Savoie: Tartiflette

30 03 2009

You didn’t think I could get through Savoie month without discussing Tartiflette, did you?  I’ve made variations on the theme in my kitchen before, but this time, I wanted to try my hand at the real deal.  Using Robuchon’s recipe as a reference, I began by sautéeing lardons and added thinly sliced leeks once the bacon had rendered.  (Onions would be more traditional, but the CSA people keep sending me leeks.)

Bacon and leeks - before

While the leek-bacon mixture cooked, I cut some potatoes (also from the CSA panier – look at me, cooking all local and organic!) into cubes – didn’t bother peeling them – and boiled them until they were tender.  When the leeks were beginning to caramelize, I poured some white wine into the pan and let it cook a few minutes longer until the wine was reduced to a glaze.

Wine-braised leeks and lardons

I scraped this heavenly-smelling concoction over the drained potatoes and stirred gently to coat the potatoes in the bacony, winey goodness.

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We’ve Got The Beet

3 03 2009

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. 

Remember the last time I cooked beets?  (I know you probably don’t, that’s why I put the link in there.)  Well, I ate them, but the recipe obviously didn’t have me clamoring for more.  And I made no more attempts to cook them until they showed up in my CSA panier a few weeks ago.

Just look at that color!

You see, I really want to like beets, especially this time of year.  They are such a sexy shade of deep red, in striking contrast to the whites and browns of most of Winter’s root vegetables.  So what can I do to make them taste as sexy as they look?  In a word: bacon.  Oh, I threw some chestnuts in there for good measure, and drizzled it all with a little Balsamic vinegar, all of which I’m sure helps the cause, but we all know it’s the smoky, meaty bacon that makes the magic happen.

Love the array of warm colors in this dish!

Balsamic Roasted Beets with Bacon and Chestnuts

 

Here it is – the recipe that finally made me like beets.  

 

3½ oz. / 100 g lardons

2 medium beets, peeled and diced into ½ inch (13 mm) cubes

4½ oz. / 130 g roasted, peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped

1 shallot, thinly sliced (optional)

Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme

Olive oil

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Balsamic vinegar

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.
  2. Place the lardons in a small saucepan and cover with cold water.  Place over medium heat and bring up to a simmer.  Remove from heat and drain.
  3. Combine the beet cubes, blanched lardons, chestnuts, shallot (if using) and thyme on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Season with salt and pepper and splash a little olive oil on top.  Stir to coat.
  4. Roast 20 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven, drizzle the beets with a little balsamic vinegar, stir to redistribute, and roast for another 20 minutes, or until beets are tender.  Serve hot.

 

Serves 2 as a side dish.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Regional French Cuisine: Alsace: Flammekueche

6 02 2009

I bet you’ve all been wondering when I was going to announce the featured region for February, right?  Well, here we are, at the end of the first week, and I give you: Alsace.

Alsace is a small (the smallest in metropolitan France, which is akin to the lower 48, if you know what that means) region in northeastern France, bordering Germany and Switzerland.  The region has bobbled back and forth between France and Germany for most of its history, but has rested with France since 1945.  These days, most Alsatians (people, not dogs) speak French, but the German influence remains prominent in the cuisine of the region.  Pork and charcuterie are a cornerstone of the traditional dishes, and the Germanic history is evident in the wine varietals used and in the high concentration of regional breweries.

Choucroute and flammekueche are the beacons of Alsatian cuisine, and since I’ve already written about choucroute for this blog, I thought I’d try my hand at a flammekueche.  Comprising a thin bread dough spread with crème fraîcheand topped with bacon and onions, flammekueche was traditionally baked among the expiring coals of the day’s bread-baking, giving it a characteristic char on the edges.  Not being fortunate enough to own my own wood-fired oven (someday…), I made do with my stand-by pizza dough, and turning my little oven up as high as it goes.  I also substituted leeks for the onions, since we had just received another lovely batch in the CSA panier.  Simply sweating them in rendered bacon fat before plopping it all onto a round of dough smeared thickly with crème fraîche and topping it with a smattering of grated comté cheese rewarded us with a scrumptious flatbread tart.

Flammekueche, fresh from the oven

I served it with a mâche salad (also from the panier) with a quick vinaigrette.  Looks like those French-Germans know what they’re doing when it comes to hearty winter meals.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.








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