Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pasta with Creamy Pea Sauce

Over the past few weeks I’ve really been hit hard with an intense feeling of being blissfully busy. Yes, this is a good thing. Living a half-mile from my work has opened up so may doors, freeing up at least three hours of daytime that I used to spend sitting behind the wheel. I have been cramming loads of stuff into every nook of free time that I have acquired. Again, good thing. Things like being on a recreational softball team, cake commissions and simply going to a party or a post-work happy hour are at last doable. I’m living large over here people!

Most notable, though, is that I’ve been running quite a bit. I decided on a whim to sign up for a half-marathon and only give myself 2 months to train so I’ve had to adapt to a pretty intense running routine that I haven’t had since high school. It’s been hard to get back into it but I’m quickly regaining that sort of life-high that comes with regular running. There’s just something about spending the first hour of the day outside that sets everything off right. I share the morning with a lone fox perusing the remains of someone’s overgrown garden, herds of suburban deer, and corporate gentlemen making their morning bike-commute. I head out with a hazy, halfway sun and return with emerging light rays. It’s pretty great.

So what does someone with a plethora of busyness and ravenous post-run food cravings eat. Pasta, of course. More specifically, pasta drenched in a creamy, garlic-butter, green pea sauce. I’ve made a huge load if it twice in the past month and it might just become a problem because I’m still craving it. The recipe is from River Cottage Veg by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Coming from this book, then, it is technically supposed to be a vegetarian recipe, but honestly I add bacon to it and it’s delicious so I don’t care what anyone thinks. It’s really quite simple and relatively cheap and you can make a ton of it, divvy it up between pyrex containers, and eat it for lunch all week long. Basically all it takes is whizzing up some warm peas in a food processor with garlic butter, mascarpone, and parm and mixing it with some hot pasta, crispy bacon and a few more whole peas. That’s about all there is too it. One could say it’s easy peasy…or one could not. I’m leaving now.

Pasta with Creamy Pea Sauce
Serves 3-4

Note: I really like using orecchiette or conchiglie pasta for this because the cup shapes make a great place for peas to get trapped. It’s like a little surprise when you bite down and get pleasant pop of a pea in your pasta.

1 lb. frozen peas
12 oz small pasta
3 Tbs. butter
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1 oz. Parmesan, grated, plus more for serving
6 strips cooked bacon
salt and pepper

Begin by frying your bacon in a large skillet. Once cooked, crumble it into large-ish pieces and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for your pasta. While that comes to a boil, wipe out the frying pan and pour in your frozen peas. Cover with water and bring to a boil as well. Let simmer for a few minutes. Using a measuring cup, reserve ½ cup of the pea cooking water and drain the peas. Set aside.

Add your pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook according to package instructions. While the pasta cooks, use the same skillet and heat the butter over low heat. Once melted, add the garlic and cook gently for 2-3 minutes until soft, but not colored.

Combine ¾ of the warm peas, the pea cooking water, garlic butter, mascarpone, and parmesan cheese in a food processor and blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Once the pasta is done cooking, drain and combine immediately with the pea sauce in a large bowl. Combine with the remaining whole peas and the bacon. Serve with more parmesan, cracked black pepper, some red pepper flakes, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Moroccan Carrot Salad with Sesame Lamb Meatballs and Couscous

Things have been pretty low-key around here lately. After my short escape to 80-degree weather and sunshine, the return to this seemingly non-ending winter has re-dampened my spirits a little bit. What little tan I obtained lasted all of about 3 days and already I’ve slipped back into the normal daily routine following that post-vacation high.

I’ve been finding ways to keep my mind and my hands busy though, other than using them to repeatedly place dark chocolate Cadbury mini-eggs in my mouth.  I’m finally starting to make use of that gym membership I signed up for over a month ago and last weekend my roommates and I hosted a small brunch gathering complete with sourdough waffles, sweet potato frittata, plenty of bacon, mimosas, and a day long marathon of Survivor reruns. I also saw The Grand Budapest Hotel and was more than satisfied with Wes Anderson’s newest bizarre yet brilliant creation. And throughout it all I’ve been eating lots of Moroccan food.

When it comes to comforting food, I rank those with loads of warm spices among the likes of all things cheesy, brothy, and carby.  For me, the flavors of Morocco, Greece, and India are some of the most inviting and throughout the last few years I have been striving to expand my repertoire of spice knowledge and ethnic cooking, mainly because I just love it so much. This past week I combined a few Moroccan inspired recipes and came up with these awesome carrot salad and lamb meatball bowls. Carrots are cooked until soft, mashed, and doused with a lemony cumin dressing. They’re piled over a mound of buttered couscous and topped with olives, scallions, feta, and preserved lemon. Finally, little sesame lamb meatballs are placed alongside. It was as excellent as leftovers as it was the night I made it and was the perfect companion to a glass of wine on a snowy evening.

Moroccan Carrot Salad with Lamb Meatballs and Couscous
Salad adapted from David Tanis’ One Good Dish
Serves 4

Please note that, although optional, the preserved lemon really makes this dish. It’s a little hard to find and a bit unkind to the wallet but I definitely think it’s worth the effort to find some.

For The Salad
2 lbs. Carrots, peeled
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
3 Tbs. lemon juice
½ tsp. finely chopped garlic
1 tsp. grated ginger
pinch of cayenne
salt and pepper
¼ cup olive oil
4 oz. feta cheese
1 small preserved lemon – rinse, remove the pulp, and finely dice the rind
2 scallions, chopped
a large handful of kalamata olives chopped

For The Meatballs
1 lb. ground lamb
2/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
¼ cup water
1 tsp. salt
1 large egg
2 cloves of garlic, minced
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. smoked paprika
a large pinch of red pepper flakes
2 Tbs. sesame seeds, toasted

To Serve
1 cup couscous, cooked according to package instructions
1 Tbs. butter

Place the carrots in a large pot of salted water. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, and let cool for about 10 minutes. To make the dressing, combine the cumin, coriander, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, cayenne, and salt & pepper in a small dish. Whisk in the olive oil. Use a potato masher or a fork to roughly mash the carrots. Pour over the dressing and stir to combine. Taste and add salt if needed. Sprinkle over the feta, preserved lemon, scallions, and olives.

While the carrots cook, start making the meatballs. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a large sheet pan with parchment paper. Combine all of the meatball ingredients in a large bowl and use a fork/your hands to mix everything together until evenly combined. Do not overmix. Divide the mixture into quarters and make four meatballs out of each quarter for a total of 16 meatballs. Place them on the baking sheet and bake in the oven for about 13-15 minutes until the internal temp. is 160-165 degrees.

Make your couscous and once cooked, add in the butter and toss until melted and mixed. Divide the couscous amongst 4 bowls, followed by the carrot salad. Finish each bowl with 4 meatballs per person.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Trip to Tucson, Arizona

About 7 weeks ago, I made my first completely spontaneous plane ticket purchase, a ticket to Tucson, Arizona to visit Kelly, my very good friend from college. And before I knew it the much-awaited trip came and went last weekend and what started out as a fun escape from the daily grind ended as a much more memorable experience than I could have imagined. I have now traveled further west than I ever have before, seen the most beautiful landscapes that I never really even know existed, and ate some meals that I’ll be talking about for a long time.

As with most trips that I take, they seem almost impossible to translate into explanation or words without sounding like I’m reading off of an itinerary. If I were to do that, the trip would sound a little something like this…

My trip included countless hours of country music, a day trip to Phoenix, pizza from Pizzeria Bianco (apparently the best in the U.S.), a 12-mile hike up and around the mountains of Sabino Canyon, air-force guys that did the same trail as us in about a third of our time, my first In-n-Out burger, wonderfully long catching-up sessions with Parent Trap or Duck Dynasty in the background, fried chicken and rosemary French toast from Prep and Pastry, a passionfruit doissant (aka a non-copyrighted cronut), a trip to the Desert Museum, a random craigslist meetup, shopping for “Hecho en Mexico” goods, excessively large margaritas, and the best damn Mexican food I’ve had in my life.

See, doesn’t quite capture the essence of it, does it? Nothing can truly come close to the experiences themselves but I do believe that pictures are second best, so here’s what I was able to capture of it all. And if you ever get a chance to check out Tucson, I highly recommend it, especially as an escape from the frozen tundra of the east coast.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fire Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and Eggplant

I’ve always liked the idea of eggplant, but – you know there had to be a “but” coming – eggplant and I have never really gotten along. For a long time it has officially taken a spot right next to cilantro on the “foods that I find absolutely repulsive” list. And I have found, just as I have with cilantro, that there are eggplant lovers and there are eggplant haters. But I want to like it so much. People who like it completely rave about it. You can use it as a meat substitute in certain dishes, grill it, bake it, fry it, and turn it into baba ghanoush. I feel like I’m missing out on something big but each and every time I’ve attempted to make eggplant for myself I find it to be what I would imagine slimy sponges would feel like in my mouth. 

The most depressing thing is to come across a recipe that sounds like it would be so good except for the fact that eggplant plays a major role. I find this with a lot of Ottolenghi recipes and that has to be my only serious complaint about his books. I usually pass those eggplant recipes by, never to return to them. At least, that is, until now. I was skimming though Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and got excited when I stated reading a recipe for Fire-Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and…ugh. Eggplant. There would have to be eggplant. But the rest sounded so good, a hearty vegetable and grain stew with warming Moroccan flavors; if only it didn’t have that one ingredient. But then I started reading through the recipe and noticed that the eggplant had a special preparation, microwaving it to “remove some of the moisture for a more supple outcome.” I was getting more tempted by the minute, and I am certainly glad that I followed through.

So I did microwave the eggplant, and took an extra step of squashing it between two plates with paper towels between to get out even more moisture, and found that the result reminded me quite a lot of mushrooms. I salted the eggplant beforehand too, having heard that this removes moisture and the bitter flavor. I can’t totally attest to any proven science with these methods here but all I know is that it produced palatable eggplant and that is good enough for me.

The eggplant joins the stewpot with loads of onion, carrots, three types of tomatoes (fire-roasted, sun-dried, and paste), and an interesting addition of cinnamon and raisins to create an intensely flavored, slightly sweet broth. Chickpeas and loads of cooked farro add body and thickness making a completely stick-to-your ribs stew great with a loaf of crusty bread. It just so happens that I got a nasty cold shortly after making a big pot  of this and I have been certainly glad to have a fridge full of stew around this week. So, for all of the eggplant haters out there, I have found the solution though, it’s not totally off the hated-foods list yet but perhaps a little further back in line.

Fire Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and Eggplant
Serves 6

½ cup uncooked pearled farro
1 eggplant, about 1 pound
¼ pound pancetta or bacon, cubed
1 onion, diced
1 glove of garlic, minced
½ tsp salt
½ pound carrots, quartered and diced in ½ inch pieces
¾ tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can of fire-roasted tomatoes
2½ cups vegetable broth
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup chopped oil-packed sundried tomatoes
¼ tsp. cracked black pepper
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 tsp. sugar

To Finish
chopped parsley
olive oil
whole-milk yogurt

Begin by cooking the farro. Bring about 2 cups of water to a boil with a pinch of salt. Add the farro, stir, and reduce to a simmer. Cover the pot and let cook for 20-25 minutes until tender but still a little chewy. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare the eggplant. Cut the eggplant into eighths lengthwise and cut each strip into ¼ inch pieces. Arrange half on a place and microwave for 2 minutes. Remove, place 2 paper towels overtop and press another plate firmly down on top of the eggplant. Transfer eggplant to a bowl and repeat the process with the remaining eggplant.

To prepare the stew, add the pancetta to a Dutch oven and cook over medium until crispy. Transfer to a plate and discard all but 2 Tbs. of the fat. If you want to make this vegetarian, skip this step and just start with 2 Tbs. of olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, and ¼ tsp. of salt to the pancetta fat and cook over medium for about 8 minutes until the onion is golden. Stir in the carrots, eggplant, cooked pancetta, and cinnamon and cook, stirring, for a minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the canned tomatoes and scrape any burnt bits from the bottom. Add in the broth, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, chickpeas, pepper, and the remaining ¼ tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 25 minutes or until the carrots are tender.

To finish, stir in the farro and the tsp. of sugar. Season with salt and pepper for taste and add a little water if its too thick for you. Serve a heaping bowlful with a drizzle of olive oil, the yogurt, and parsley with buttered bread on the side.