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.





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.





Pancakes aux Lardons

8 12 2008

When he was in high school, my brother used to frequent a place called The Original Pancake House.  He was a big fan of their Dutch Baby, a puffy, eggy pancake served with melted butter, powdered sugar, and lemon juice.  Every now and then, he and my Mom would bust out the cast iron skillet and make one at home, which, luckily, they were willing to share.  Anyway, as far as I knew, The Original Pancake House was just that – a one-off, family-owned breakfast joint.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that same familiar sign tucked behind the Albertson’s in another city at least 2,000 miles away.  Well, I had to give it a shot.  Not having been there in years, my memory of the menu was hazy at best.  But when I sat down, I was immediately drawn to the bacon waffles.  Who doesn’t love a nice plate of waffles drenched in maple syrup with a side of meaty, smoky bacon?  And when the bacon and the syrup chance to meet?  Bliss.  So the bacon waffle it was, and it was every bit as awesome as I expected it to be.

Mmmmm... bacon.

Fast forward to a few years later.  I’m living in Paris, and I have no waffle iron.  I do, however, make my fair share of pancakes on Sunday mornings.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this specifically before, but they sell these packages of lardons (i.e. pre-chopped bacon) in just about every portion size imaginable.  They’re totally convenient for adding small amounts of bacon to recipes, and you don’t even have to dirty a cutting board!  So, finding myself with a package of lardons in the fridge, I decided to whip up a batch of bacon pancakes.

It couldn’t have been easier.  I cooked the lardons and set them aside, then made a simple buttermilk pancake batter with a bit of medium-grind cornmeal.  As the pancakes cooked, I sprinkled them with the crisp bacon, flipped them, and breakfast was served.  Absolute heaven with butter and a liberal drizzle of maple syrup.

Breakfast of Champions

Bacon Pancakes

 

100 g (about 3½ oz.) lardons fumés, or chopped thick-cut bacon

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour (Type 65 if you’re in France)

¼ cup medium-grind cornmeal

2 tsp. cassonade or turbinado sugar

¼ tsp. coarse sea salt

¼ tsp. baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg

½ tsp. vanilla extract or bourbon

 

  1. Cook the bacon until most of the fat has rendered, and desired crispness is reached.  Set aside on a paper towel-lined plate.  Save the fat for cooking the pancakes.
  2. Combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl.  Blend the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla or bourbon in a measuring jug.  Gently stir the two mixtures together until just combined.  A few lumps are nothing to worry about.
  3. Heat a little of the bacon fat in a skillet over medium heat.  When the pan is hot and the fat is shimmering, spoon out the batter into the desired pancake size.  (This is a highly personal matter, but I think 3 Tbsp. is about right.)  As they cook, sprinkle a few of the bacon chunks over the raw pancakes in the pan.  When you see bubbles rising to the surface of the pancakes, flip them and cook a few minutes longer.  Keep them warm in a low oven while you cook the rest.
  4. Serve warm with butter and maple syrup. 

Makes enough for two hungry adults.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Fournée au Chèvre

4 12 2008

Or, to sound less fancy-pants, bacon-wrapped goat cheese.

How could I not buy this?

Here in France I am often stumbling across “convenience” products like this which I suppose are commonplace to French consumers but are totally awesome to me.  I mean, bacon-wrapped goat cheese?  For two euros?  That’s awesome.  You might be able to find something like this in the prepared-food section of some gourmet grocery stores with a huge markup, but in France, it’s at the supermarket.

Obviously, I had to buy it.  I hatched a lovely plan to pan-fry these beauties and serve them warm on a bed of watercress dressed in apple cider vinaigrette.  The watercress was already washed and waiting in the fridge, the vinaigrette was already made, it was going to be the fastest appetizer salad ever in my kitchen.  I busted out the nonstick pan (didn’t want to risk my precious cheeses getting stuck to the pan) and started frying.

The great duo of bacon and cheese

That’s when I went into the fridge to get the rest of the salad ingredients.  Vinaigrette?  Check.  Gave it a little shake in its tiny Tupperware and it was good to go.  Carefully washed, dried, loosely wrapped in a paper towel and an open plastic bag a day or two prior, my watercress should have been fine.  But it had all gone yellow.  Crap!  Nick, intrepid soul that he is, tasted a leaf as I asked hopefully, “Does it taste yellow?”  “Blech.  Yeah.” Came the reply.  Into the garbage can it went, and the warm, crisped cheeses went onto our plates alone.  And we ate them that way.  Smoky, salty bacon and creamy, tangy goat cheese, it turns out, need no other adornment.  I will be buying these again for sure.

I’m sending this to Chez Loulou for the monthly Fête du Fromage roundup.  Look for it on the 15th!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Tartiflette-ish

13 10 2008

Last month, when I was preparing for Chez Loulou’s Fête du Fromage, Nick and I went to the store in search of cheeses we had never tried before.  We ended up with this spread:

French Muenster, Saint Albray, Crottin de Chèvre, Doré de l'Abbaye

Each one is worthy of its own post, but today I’m going to write about the one on the bottom left: Doré de l’Abbaye.  It is a washed-rind cheese, so I expected it to be pretty strong and stinky.  Not so.  Very similar to Port Salut, it has a thin orange rind which is edible but not particularly tasty.  The off-white cheese inside is semi-soft with a very mild stinky-cheese flavor.  An entry-level washed-rind cheese, I would not hesitate to serve this one to newbies or people who are apprehensive about esoteric cheeses.  The texture of it reminded us a bit of Monterey Jack, and we hoped that it might be a good cheese for melting.

Which brings me to the tartiflette-of-sorts.  One of Nick’s colleagues (the one who told me about tartiflette to begin with) brought him a box of buckwheat pasta squares, which had a variation of the recipe on the back.

Savoyard buckwheat pasta

While I love the idea of pasta, cream, bacon and cheese baked together in a gooey, delicious mess, I thought I should attempt to sneak some vegetables into the dish, so as to make it a more complete meal.  Considering the sauce is basically the famous bacon-onion dip, I figured I could bulk that up with a leek or two without drastically affecting the flavor.  Then I saw the first winter squash display of the season.  After much internal debate, I chose the patidou.

That gorgeous skin was a real pain to peel, I must admit.

About the size of an acorn squash, the patidou has smooth flesh and a sweet, nutty flavor akin to butternut squash.  I just knew it would be delicious in my tartiflette-like dish.  So I peeled and diced it and sautéed it in butter until it started to brown.

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