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Nosh: Two Way Fennel and Capers with Pasta

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Hi folks.

Good to see you all again.

I know, it’s been a few weeks.  I had a rough one.  I had a bout of the blues, a touch of PTSD after my car accident, and a major funk when I reflected on 2013, which was a dismal year for me.  Thankfully I have a patient boyfriend and friends who care enough to let me open up to them.  Right now, it’s all good.

So I’m back!  And I want to talk to you all about the savory goodness of fennel.  Consider it a New Year’s gift.  Resolutions often involve eating more vegetables.  Sticking with more vegetables means eating them in surprising and tasty ways.

Fennel, fennel, fennel.  Big oniony-looking bulb, stalks that resemble celery, frothy fronds at the top.  Vaguely smells of licorice. What. The hell. Does one do with that sort of thing?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

The answer, friends, is a simple one.  EAT IT!!!

Currently in the US, fennel is mostly seen a sort of curious, marginally exotic mystery vegetable that one can only cook if one is a wizard or a professional chef.  In the US the bulb usually shows up sliced thin and raw, in salads, with oranges, which is certainly delicious but, limited in its scope, a sad underuse of fennel and all its works.  If a vegetable is nose-to-tail friendly, as it were, this would be the one.  The fronds are a fantastic garnish for everything from chicken to pasta to green beans to potatoes to hummus.  The stalks are nice and crunchy and would be a great addition to any snack bag or crudite tray, and they shave nicely into salads.  The bulb, though…you can do anything with it.  Saute it.  Fennel is fantastic grilled.  Braise it in milk (yes, really).  You’ll thank me for it.  Or…

You can turn it into healthy and delicious pasta sauce.  Because yum.  Here’s what I used:

  • 2 medium-to-large fennel; stalks very thinly sliced, bulbs cored and diced, fronds set aside
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (to taste)
  • 1 teaspooon thyme
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 cup (ish) of vegetable broth
  • 2 generous tablespoons drained and rinsed capers (or more, if you’d like)
  • A handful of fresh chopped parsley

And I always cook for one package of pasta, because I completely lack the patience to measure ounces of pasta.  I’m no stranger to leftovers, and this sauce is even better the next day.  Moving on.

The first thing to do is attack the fennel, so to get started…scroll back up and look at the picture above.  Halve your fennel bulbs and cut out the knobby core at the bottom of the bulb.  Cut off the stalks and slice them very thinly; set them off to the side.  Dice the bulb like you would an onion: planks, sticks, then cubes.

planks sticks cubes-001

Straightforward, no?

While you’re at it, cut an onion in the same way, and mince however much garlic you’d like.  Get a big pan warming to a steady medium-level saute heat, and when it’s hot enough (you don’t need it screaming hot, just hot), add oil and toss in the diced fennel.  Fennel can be dense and it often surprises me that it takes longer than onions to cook, but there’s the truth.  So.  It goes in first, and let it cook happily for a few minutes.  It may start to brown; that’s fine, just don’t let it burn.  After five minutes or so, add the onions, garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes and some fresh-ground pepper.  Zest the lemon right over your pan; the essential oils that spray out of the skin when you zest will go directly into the pan, adding to the subtle, but present, lemony goodness.

Like so.

Like so.

Juice the lemon and set the juice aside.

Get a pot of water going for your pasta, if you haven’t done so already.  When your water is ready and you cook the pasta, you’ll take it to not-quite-doneness, as it will finish cooking when you add it in to the fennel sauce at the end.  And before you drain your not-entirely-cooked pasta, reserve a half-cup or so of pasta water, some of which you’ll add to the fennel sauce to finish.

Let the fennel and onion mixture all cook together in your pan, over a nice medium heat.  You’ll want to see the onions get soft and the garlic fragrant, which should take another 8 or 10 minutes.  Again, some browning and sticking to the bottom of the pan is fine.  Desirable, even, since it creates the fond which, when pulled up with some stock and stirred back into the pan, adds a tremendous flavor boost.  When the fennel is soft and the onions are translucent, pour in the stock and stir well with a wooden spoon, so any browning on the bottom of your pan comes up.  Add the bay leaves.  Simmer for 10 minutes or so.

This is moving along as it ought.

This is moving along as it ought.

You can also deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup of white wine before adding in the stock, since fennel loves to work with white wine.  I just didn’t have any in the house.  If you do, then pour in the wine, give it all a stir to pull up the fond.  Simmer for a few minutes, until the alcohol cooks out and the wine smells more like sauce and less like hot wine.  Add the stock at this point and carry on.

A note about the amount of stock: I say use about a cup, but this is entirely dependent on how you prefer your pasta sauce.  I want the sauce to be nice and thick, so I’m not going to use enough stock to make the sauce soupy.  The stock is going to cook off a little in the simmer, and then the entire thing will be blended together.  You’ll have an opportunity to thin the sauce after blending if you’d like, so my advice is to approach stock with a gentle hand and see how it goes.

Anyway.

Get another pan going and add your very thin slices of fennel stalk, with just a little salt and pepper added to bring out the flavor. You’re going to want to get these nice and browned and yummy, to serve as a crisp contrast to the soft fennel of the sauce.

Truth: cut them thinner than this.

Truth: Next time, I will cut them thinner than this.

Once these are nice and brown, remove them from the heat and top with the reserved lemon juice.  Set aside until the pasta is complete.

When all the contents of your pan have cooked together and the veggies are nice and tender, remove the bay leaves and give everything else a whirl in a blender or food processor.  Put the blended sauce back in the pan and back on the heat and if you feel like it’s too gloppy for your liking, thin your sauce by adding very small increments of stock.  Add in your drained pasta and the grilled fennel stalks, and a splash or two of reserved pasta water.  Let that cook together a minute or two longer, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has become a lovely, clingy unit.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.  Chop some fresh parsley, and drain and rinse your capers.

Normally I’d say capers and parsley are optional, but…not in this dish, they’re not.  The capers add a playful, deep, briny punch to the mellowed aroma of the fennel and heightens the hints of lemon in the sauce, and the parsley adds a fresh green pungency that lifts this dish off the plate and right into yo’ mouth.  You can also add some of the fennel fronds as a garnish, but I used most of them in the salad.

I want to make this again.  Right now.

I want to make this again. Right now.

When we sat down to eat dinner, my boyfriend took his first bite, then looked at me with a big smile on his face and said, “Wow!  And it’s not…totally weird!  You don’t need some fancy palate to enjoy this!”

Ummm.

Actually, though, that’s really cool.  Reviewer Number One thinks my fennel pasta sauce is yummy and generally accessible.  I’ll take it!  As this dish stands it’s entirely vegan, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be amenable to a shot of cream or butter at the end, or a sprinkling of good, hard cheese.  We ate this with a fresh salad and sweet and spicy Brussels sprouts that were insanely good.  We ate it the next day, too.  We’re going to eat this again and again.  Yay for fennel!  Eat more of it, because it’s delicious!  You don’t even have to be a wizard.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

Enjoy!

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Nosh: Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce

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There isn’t much in this world I like more than savory winter gourds, like butternut squash (or, “pumpkin” if you live anywhere outside the US) and not surprisingly, I am happy to eat them in just about any shape or form.  But, because I am an unrepentant carb-girl (gimme STAAAAAAAARCH!), I’m even happier to eat squash if it involves something like pasta as an accompaniment.  Imagine my delight when I discovered that butternut squash makes a spectacular, silky, savory, comforting, beautiful pasta sauce that will keep you nice and cozy on the coming winter nights.  You’ll need:

  • 1.5-2 lb butternut squash
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of dried thyme (or two teaspoons of fresh)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried sage (or a teaspoon of fresh, finely chopped, if you have it)
  • a few shakes of crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/2 c vegetable broth
  • 1/4 c milk
  • a food processor or blender

The hardest part of this dish, as I’ve mentioned previously while pontificating on the virtues of butternut squash, is getting the damned squash prepped for eating.  That shell is hard!  And so is the squash flesh, when you first cut into it.  Slow and steady, friends.  Take a look here for some love and guidance on how to prep butternut squash, provided by yours truly.

Got it?

Get yourself ready.  Start to warm up a large pan so you can saute your squash, eventually.  Dice the squash into a half-inch dice and cut the onion the same.  Mince garlic (or leave it out entirely; while I adore garlic there’s enough going on in this dish that it won’t suffer without it).

See?  It can be done.

See? It can be done.

Toss the squash, onions, and garlic into the warm pan you’ve already added oil to, so it’s all nice and hot.  Add some salt and pepper, to get the veggies cooking right.

I just had this the other day; I already want to make it again.

I just had this the other day; I already want to make it again.

Leave the butternut squash and onions alone for five or ten minutes; you want the onions to start to break down and get translucent and soft, though the squash will still be plenty hard.  Add the other spices–thyme, sage, crushed red pepper flakes, and nutmeg.  A word about fresh vs. dry herbs: when you saute, use twice as much of a particular fresh herb as you would the dried (provided, of course, your dried thyme hasn’t been sitting around in your pantry for three years; in that case, no amount of dried herbs will give you any flavor worth talking about, since their essential oils are long-punked-out.  Throw that away and start over).  The flavor has concentrated in dried herbs and they will be more pungent than fresh, so use them accordingly.  Let everything saute together for a few minutes, until your veggies start to develop a rich, lovely fond (the brown bits at the bottom of your pan that you have to scrape off, and don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ve messed up and burnt anything because you haven’t and fond makes food gooo–oooo-ood).

This isn't burnt by any means. It's an achievement.

This isn’t burnt by any means. It’s a pan full of happy.

Add the broth and scrape the pan to pull up the fond.  I start with a half-cup, but feel free to add more as you start to cook if your squash and onions look like they’re starting to dry out.  Just give them a little while to cook to see how much liquid they’ll release into the pan on their own.  The squash and onions will need to cook in the pan, in the broth, for another 20-25 minutes.  This would be a good time to get your water boiling so you can make the pasta and have the sauce and pasta ready at roughly the same time.  Did I mention that my fabulous boyfriend made homemade pasta?

Who knew pappardelle could be so sexy?

Who knew pappardelle could be so sexy?

It was semolina pasta, so it was super-dense and fully complemented the autumnal feel of this dish.  I highly recommend it, if you are lucky enough to have a pasta-making partner hanging around the house.  Otherwise, look for a thicker, fuller pasta.  I wouldn’t go anything smaller than fettuccine if you want a long pasta, but if you use short choose something like rigatoni.

Once the squash cooks through and turns nice and soft…

Into the blender.  Or the food processor.  Or mash and whip by hand, if you’re a pioneer.  Whatever method you choose to whirl your squash into submission is entirely up to you, but your objective is to make it a smooth and delicious puree.  Once the solids have been pureed, add them back into the pan, and then add in the milk and give it all a stir.  I like to add milk because it thins out the sauce to the texture I want and does add a touch of creaminess, but if you’re on a dairy-free diet then by all means, leave the milk out and just factor in a little bit more broth to get it to a desired consistency.  Even without the milk, it will still be delicious.  When the pasta is almost cooked through (try and get it about a minute from doneness), drain it and add it to the sauce.

Hallelujah! You've entered the final stage of cooking.

Hallelujah! You’ve entered the final stage of cooking.

Let that cook together another minute or so longer, then give it a final taste to adjust salt and pepper if necessary, and sit down for your feast.  It’s easy enough to make all the time, and fancy enough to serve to dinner guests.  You can top this with fresh parsley or chives for an added herbal kick, or you can add shredded cheese for that great salty bite it gives.  We served this with roasted cauliflower (recipe coming soon), roasted kohlrabi, bread with tapenade (a fancy word for “ground up olives”, so good and so easy!) and a green salad.

Dinner, voila! She is served.

Dinner, voila! She is served.

Nosh: Tortellini Soup

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You know when you go away from your regular routine…say, you go on vacation, perhaps, to Myrtle Beach for a week.  And you completely fall out of sync with your own routine because you’re on vacation so who wants to be practical…so sure I’ll have the nachos and beer for lunch and burgers and fries for dinner every night!  Woo hoo!  The laws of food do not affect me!  I am impervious to the effects of excess!

Let me just say: It seems?  That I am, indeed, pervious.

When George and I get home from almost anywhere that generates a change in our habits and creates an opportunity for excess–a vacation, a long weekend out of town, an overnighter at a wedding, whatever–we generally come back craving something that will be a) filling and satisfying and b) crammed with non-fried vegetables.  Tortellini soup has become our go-to dish to get us back on the track of our regular, generally healthy eating habits.

This soup is wonderfully flexible and can be a device for using those sad-looking bits of vegetables that have started to wilt in your fridge after you’ve been away for a few days (as all soups can be) though I confess I am in love with the version I bring to you today.  So yes, you can (of course!) put in whatever you’d like but I recommend sticking to this version if you’re so inclined.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 or 2 glugs of olive oil in the bottom of your soup pot
  • 3 white mushrooms, cut in a small dice
  • 1 sweet onion, diced
  • 2-3 medium carrots, sliced
  • 3 (or more!) cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 zucchini, cut in half-moons
  • a few large handfuls (sorry, that’s the best measurement I’ve got) of kale (or spinach or whatever leafy greens you prefer)
  • 1 – 9oz. package fresh tortellini (hahahaha, no I don’t make my own)
  • 1 – 35oz. can whole tomatoes (when tomatoes aren’t in season and are mealy, or you want to make this as easy as possible, do yourself a tremendous favor and use canned)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if you’re not keeping it vegetarian), plus additional water to reach desired consistency
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 1 healthy teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 healthy teaspoon rosemary
  • red chili flakes to taste
  • a goodly pinch of nutmeg (freshly grated if you’ve got it)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • extra-virgin olive oil and shredded parmesan, for garnish (optional)

Get your soup pot heating and when it’s warm, add olive oil to said pot.  Dice mushrooms into about a half-inch dice, throw them in the hot oil and grind in a little fresh pepper.  Leave them alone for the next five minutes.  DO NOT TOUCH THEM.  Your objective is to get them caramelized, and if you stir them around they’ll just steam and won’t brown.

Get those 'shrooms going in the bottom of your pot.

I repeat: DON’T TOUCH THEM!

While they’re cooking, chop the onions, garlic and carrots.  You’re going to want the onions and carrots to roughly match the size of the mushrooms as they meld into one delicious flavor base for your soup.  Mince the garlic, of course, because who wants to bite into a half-inch dice of garlic?  Not me, unless I’m prepared for it.  Anyway.

There we go.

There we go.

Once the mushrooms have browned unmolested in your soup pot, start adding your veggies.  Add the onions first and let them saute for 3-5 minutes, until they soften and start to turn golden. Then add the carrots and garlic. Let them cook together for another 2-3 minutes.  While the veggies are all cooking together you can measure out your herbs. I tossed the dried fennel and rosemary in a mortar and pestle and crushed them lightly to help release their flavors, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.  The herbs just won’t taste quite as strong.

I put the bay leaves in the mortar and pestle for ease of photography. Don't crush them.

I put the bay leaves in the mortar and pestle for ease of photography. Don’t crush them.

Once the mushrooms, carrots, onions and garlic have cooked together for a few minutes, add the herbs (and the crushed red pepper to taste, if you’re using it), a decent pinch of salt and a few shakes of pepper.  Let them saute for another few minutes; by this point the bottom of the pot should be developing a nice fond, which is the brown residue from the veggies (fond is a French term, it means “foundation”, get it?)

While your veggies and fond are cooking, manhandle your tomatoes. I mean, really, get ready to stick your mitts into them.  Crush them to bits. Yes, you could buy pre-crushed tomatoes but I just…the more other people process your food for you, the less it tastes like the thing it is.  So you get your hands dirty, so what?

Your hands: the best tomato crushing tools on the planet.

Your hands: the best tomato crushing tools on the planet.

I mean, I’m not suggesting you stick your (impeccably clean, to start this job) hands in a bucket of acid.  They’re just tomatoes.  You’ll recover.

Once they’re smooshed (which should really take you no more than a minute or two) check your veggies, and make sure you look at how brown it’s getting on the bottom of the pan.  I ended up taking this fond exactly as far as it would go before it started to burn, which is great but can make a person a little nervous.

Fifteen seconds longer and it would have started to burn.

Fifteen seconds longer and it would have started to burn.

If you don’t want to let it get quite this brown, I totally understand.  But.  Once the fond is the color you want, add your beautifully crushed tomatoes and start to scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pot, because it is jam-packed with deliciousness.  Let that all simmer together for a minute, then add the stock and water to get it to a soupy consistency.  You can add a little more water than you originally might think you need.  The soup is going to cook down and you’re also going to cook the tortellini right in the pot, so an extra shot of water in preparation isn’t a bad thing.

Looking more like soup all the time.

Looking more like soup all the time.

Bring this to a boil and then let it simmer for twenty minutes or so. If you’ve just gotten in from a long trip, this is a great time to empty out a suitcase or put away toiletries or log into Facebook to see what’s going on.  Slice your half-a-zucchini into half-moons.

These?  Don't dice. Half-moons are funner.

These? Don’t dice. Half-moons are funner.

Toss ‘em in the pot.  Let them go for another fifteen minutes or so.  Open your package of tortellini and chop your kale into manageable bites.

When you've got this ready, dinner is mere minutes away.

When you’ve got this ready, dinner is mere minutes away.

You want the zucchini to soften but you don’t want it to cook into an unrecognizable mush, so really only let that go for 10 minutes before you add the tortellini.  The pasta will cook quickly; it only takes about three minutes for it to go from this

Scrawny raw tortellini.

Scrawny raw tortellini.

To this

Mmmm! Nice plump pillows of cheesy pasta.

Mmmm! Nice plump pillows of cheesy pasta.

Once your pasta reaches this stage, add the greens, which will wilt within moments of being in the hot soup.  Add the pinch of nutmeg, or give it a few passes with a nutmeg grater, if that’s what you use.

Of course I use a nutmeg grater.

Of course I use a nutmeg grater.

Because it is true: nutmeg + bitter greens = true love.

Once your greens are fully wilted, it’s SOUP TIME!

This soup has become our go-to, full-on comfort, I am home and cooking how I want to and done eating nachos for a while-type soup.  You can go from unprocessed to done in about an hour, and much of that is unattended, so you’re not tied to your stove and can take care of the business of coming home from a trip while your dinner cooks.  And maybe detox with a little herbal tea (I recommend the hibiscus).  Serve this with a nice grainy piece of bread and a green salad and you’ve got a hearty, savory, satisfying way to get yourself back into the healthy groove.

And if you have a great back porch to eat this on on a summer night?  Bliss.

And if you have a great back porch to eat this on on a summer night? Bliss.

This is a recipe I intend to make for the rest of my cookin’ life.  I hope you enjoy it!

Nosh: Homemade Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe Sauce

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Just writing the words “orecchiette with broccoli rabe sauce” makes me happy.  I’m kind of a simple creature, really.  That’s all I need.  Well, that and having a plate of the actual food in front of me, because I am a hungry girl with a love for the delicious.

This brings me to orecchiette, which I love for many reasons.  Let me count the ways.  First, I love it for its name, which means “little ears” in Italian.  They are round, disc-like things that have depressions in the middle, kind of like ears do.  Adorbs!  Next, I love them because they are dense.  You don’t need to completely load them down with cheeses and fats to give orecchiette some heft because they’re made with semolina.  That’s a serious, no-nonsense flour, so they’re hearty and kind of chewy and you really know you’re digging in and eating something.  Finally, I love orecchiette because people are seemingly compelled to pair it with broccoli rabe, and I am down with anything that puts rapini in my trough.  And yes, broccoli rabe = rapini = these words are interchangeable.  I didn’t necessarily know that at first, and I’m still trying to figure out where broccolini fits into the broccoli family, but I digress.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see a store in Lewisburg and its environs that sells orecchiette, so my feasting upon it has largely been confined to restaurants and/or bags brought back from forays into shops in nearby metro areas.  But who needs that?  I have thumbs, I can cook.  I’ll make my own!  Do note, please: if you’re interested in making a pasta with broccoli rabe sauce but have no interest in making orecchiette, I understand.  Skip this part, scroll down to where I talk about the super-easy sauce which comes together in about twenty minutes, and feel free to use a store-bought pasta.  Just make sure you choose something hearty, like whole-wheat rotini.  If you are interested in making the orecchiette as well, then read on!

First, mix your dry ingredients.  Orecchiette seems to favor a 2:1 ratio for its flour.  I used a cup of semolina flour and subsequently, I used a half-cup of AP flour.  Mix the flours together with some salt (for this recipe, no more than a quarter-teaspoon) and have a half-cup of warm-ish water handy, though you may not use all of it.  Also, keep a baking tray dusted with semolina flour nearby to serve as a landing pad for your shaped pasta.

Ready to roll.

Ready to roll.

Put in about half the water and start kneading, and add more water in small increments until you get a ball of dough that is cohesive and elastic.  You can put it in a stand mixer if you have one with a good dough hook, but I don’t.  I just did it by hand.  It only took about five minutes of work to get it from a gnarly pile of mess…

Trust me, it gets better.

Trust me, it gets better.  Though I really want to put googly eyes on this.

To beautiful elastic ball of dough.

OMG, I can't hardly believe it.

OMG, I can’t hardly believe it.

When researching orecchiette, I read a bunch of food blogs offering conflicting advice about how to proceed.  Let it rest, don’t let it rest.  Wrap it in plastic, don’t wrap it.  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what to do, but here’s the thing: it’s never really a bad idea to let your dough rest, though it doesn’t seem that it would be criminal if you didn’t rest it.  I wanted to tend to some onions I had cooking on the stove so I took the opportunity to let it rest, and covered it with the bowl I originally measured out the flour in so my dough didn’t dry out in the open air.  If you need to park your dough for a little while, this is a perfect time to do so though if you’re going to let sit for more than a half an hour I’d at least lay down some plastic under it.  When you’re ready, cut your dough into eight pieces and roll those eight pieces out into doughy dowels about 18 inches long.  Ish.

That moment of perfect potential, when things can go great or really, really poorly.

That perfect moment of total potential, when things can go great or really, really poorly.

Cut them into pieces about an inch long and then?  Squish them into shape.  Again, in my research I read blogs that advised wrapping your dough around a spoon, or allowing the friction from the back of a dull knife to cause the pasta to curl, but then I thought, if I were some traditional Puglian nonna trying to make dinner, would I worry about ever-so-carefully fussing with the back of a knife?  Or would I use the most basic tools available to me and have at them with my thumbs?

Thumbs won.  I stuck my thumb in the middle of one piece of dough and shaped it with the other hand.  Voila, little indented pastas.  And they’re supposed to be rustic, so if they don’t look perfect, that’s fine.

Orecchiette!

Orecchiette!

Again, there are different schools of thought regarding what to do with your pasta now.  I’ve seen sites that advise you to let the shaped pasta sit at least one hour before cooking, I’ve seen sites that say you can use it right away.  I let mine sit–in the open, uncovered, just as you see it here–for the twenty minutes or so that it took me to prepare the sauce, and they didn’t dry out much and cooked super-super fast once I got them in boiling water.  So.  Once they’re at this point you can walk away and take care of other business.

For us, that other business is sauce.  This is pretty straightforward, and adapted from Mario Batali.  First, cut onions and garlic.  I used a TON of garlic because (regular readers, you know this) I am a junkie for garlic and am even more so when it comes to bitter greens, but of course you don’t have to use five cloves of garlic if you think that’s excessive.  This would also be a good time to get your pasta water started, so it’s boiling and ready by the time you want it.  If you’re using dried pasta, start the water before you cut a single bit of onion since you need to let the water boil and then let the pasta cook for eight or ten minutes before it’s ready to use.

What?  No, it's good for you!

What? No, garlic is good for you!

Let the onions and garlic saute in a very large pan at a medium heat with a dose of crushed red pepper to taste (I like the spicy) for five or six minutes, until they’re nice and soft and taking on that beautiful oniony-golden hue.  Add in your broccoli rabe, which has been rinsed, had the tough bottom ends of the stems removed, and roughly chopped.

So. Close. To done.

So. Close. To done.

Once that’s in the pan, grate a little fresh nutmeg over it (yes, really, it just makes it warm and homey) and toss in some salt and pepper.  This should saute for about five minutes before you add the tomatoes.

Come on, it even LOOKS festive.

Come on, it even LOOKS festive.

p.s. Is your water boiling yet?

Allow the tomatoes to cook in with the rapini for two or three minutes and put your fresh orecchiette in to boil.  Give it a stir and then watch it; within a minute or so it should start to float and when that happens, it’s ready to drain.  Reserve a ladle full of pasta water and drain your noodles.  Check the sauce.  If it seems kind of watery and needs to tighten up, add in some of your ladle of starchy pasta water, give it a stir, and then add your drained noodles to your pan.  Let them cook together for a minute or two.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper–I hit mine with a pretty sizeable amount of fresh-ground black pepper.  Make a chiffonade from ten or so fresh mint leaves, stir this in and remove from heat.  Give it a little kiss from some pecorino-romano and serve.  We ate ours with Parmesan-roasted acorn squash and bread with Fiery Onion Relish.

Fact: I can't wait to eat the leftovers, either.

Score!

Fact: I can’t wait to eat the leftovers, either.

Nosh: Roasted Turnips and Pasta

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I came home from a visit with my family with a giant bag full of turnips.

Turnips.

There are few things that are less sexy than a turnip.  The word is unsexy.   The raw root in its un-manhandled state is unsexy.  And most people, when they think of how they’ve eaten turnips, think of them mashed.

Image from food.com

Image from food.com

which looks like baby food.  By definition…unsexy.  Delicious, maybe.  But unsexy.

Not that I always need my food to bring the sexy at all times but it’s nice to think of other things to do with it an ingredient that…well…doesn’t remind you of baby food.  And turnips are good!  They’re bright and peppery, but their flesh can be a little watery and thus marginally difficult (marginally; let’s not make this seem more bleak than it really is) to manage in the cooking process.  This is where roasting comes in.

I have come to the conclusion that roasting makes everything better.  Kale?  Sure!  Tomatoes?  Roast ‘em slow for a few hours and then just try to contain yourself.  Parsnips?  Brussels sprouts?  Yes and yes!  I just roasted grapes and shallots to stuff into some crêpes.  I even roast lemons when I make lemon risotto, because it deepens and mellows the lemon flavor so you don’t bite into a tart lemonade-flavored pile of hot rice.  Because roasting is a (relatively) dry heat it can help eliminate the water in the turnip and temper its peppery bite, especially if it’s a larger, older turnip.

Anyway.  I had these turnips and…what else?  Since I saw this as a great opportunity to clear out some stuff in my fridge it became a little bit of a kitchen sink dinner (as in, “everything but the…”).  I wrote out a rough draft of the recipe, but it’s written to accommodate how I think (and I always plan for leftovers) so it’s probably best if you read along in the blog first.

Heat your oven to 350°.  Prepare your garlic first.  Why?  Because you can start it roasting while you prep the veggies and said garlic will be ready earlier.  This means you can let the garlic get cool enough to handle, squeeze out the cloves while everything else finishes in the oven, and mix them in with the ricotta cheese without missing a beat.  Cut an entire bulb straight across the top, exposing the cross-sectioned cloves.  Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper.

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Mmm…roasted garlic…

There are two things to bear in mind regarding roasted garlic.  One: if it’s too much for you, or you don’t like or can’t eat garlic, don’t worry.  Skip this step entirely and mix something like pesto or maybe roasted red peppers in with the cheese.  Be creative.  It’s your dinner.  And two: if you don’t have a fancy clay garlic roaster, don’t sweat it.  Neither do I.  Or rather, I think I do but I have no idea where it is.  Notice that the garlic is on a big piece of aluminum foil?  That’s there for a reason.  Fold the foil up around your garlic, crimp the edges together and voila!  Instant garlic roaster.

Peel your turnips and onions, and cut them and the zucchini into roasting-friendly chunks.  Put them all in pans and toss them with salt-pepper-oil, and let them roast for a half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes, checking on them and giving them a stir after the first twenty.  Do you want to sprinkle the veggies with thyme?  All right.  Or, do you want to toss them with some balsamic vinegar?  Go for it!  I just wanted the pure vegetable/garlic combo the day I made this but you know, try what you think will make you happy.  It’s all good.  I do admit, I had way more turnips to start with than this recipe needs, but in the interests of making my life easier I roasted all of them at once.  Whatever’s left over the next day can be topped with breadcrumbs and reheated as a side dish…or stuffed into peppers…or loaded into a quesadilla…the possibilities are endless.

Loads of veggies ready to roast!

Loads of veggies ready to roast!

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I tend to cook in “one”s.  One onion, one zucchini, one bulging bag of turnips, and if I cut too much or cook too much, I incorporate what’s left into something else.  Who wants to measure things?  Not this girl.  Anyway.

I had about a half a cup of ricotta cheese left in my fridge and it was at the “use it or lose it” point…you know when you buy something to make one, specific thing, and then you’ve got that pathetic, almost-but-not-quite useless amount lurking on your shelves until you finally, months later, give up and throw it away?  Yeah.  It makes me crazy; I hate to waste food.  So why not use it here?  I also had a reasonable chunk of Swiss cheese that was approaching “use it or lose it” so I ask again: why not?  You could also use that lonesome piece of mozzarella you have left over from pizza night, or that chunk of muenster your kids won’t eat because they think it’s “monster cheese”.  Creative use of straggler food is what makes for a great kitchen sink dinner; you are virtuously not wasting either food or the money you spent to buy it while in the process making a healthy meal for you and your loved ones, and who doesn’t feel good about that?

Ricotta, garlic, Swiss, and some hot pasta water.  Dinner is mere moments away.

Ricotta, garlic, Swiss, and some hot pasta water. Dinner is mere moments away.

If your veggies are approaching doneness then your pasta should be boiling by now.  Mash howevermuch garlic you want into the ricotta (or, see above for non-garlic suggestions), reserve one cup of your pasta water, drain your pasta and then prepare for major assemblage.

Put a few handfuls of cleaned spinach into a bowl.  Shake some red pepper flakes on it and toss it with some of the hot, starchy pasta water so it begins to wilt.

Step one: Complete!

Step one: Complete!

Then: add the ricotta and garlic mixture and the rest of the water, and give that a good stir.  Pour the steaming pasta on top of that, and then top with your veggies.  If you think you roasted more turnips or zucchini or onions than you want in the pasta, that’s fine, only add as much as you think is right.  Mix in the Swiss cheese and, if you want, more fresh-ground pepper or some fresh herbs like parsley or chives.  Stir to combine, and let the Swiss cheese get all ooey-gooey-melty.  Have some Parmesan on the side for grating and serve with a green salad, and you’ve got one heck of a lovely turnip dinner.

Yes.

Yes.

For the record, my sister–who only ever associates turnips with mashing and of which she is not a fan–stopped by the night we made this.  I asked her if she wanted to try a little; she stayed for a whole plate.  It has the power to convert.  Don’t be afraid.  Just take the leap.

Travel: The Food In Florence

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I’d been meaning and meaning and meaning to blog about the food in Italy, but I simply hadn’t gotten around to it yet. It’s as though fate (or something) intended for me to wait for Ailsa’s travel food theme and now that it’s here, I am more than happy to oblige.

Let me preface my paean to the Florentine menu by saying: I don’t think I had a bad meal in Italy. I did have a few meals that were kind of sort of vaguely meh but for the most part? The food was a big win. There’s an approach in Italy we need to adopt in the US; if you’re going to take the time to eat food it should be the best food it can be. Even the fast food-esque, perfunctory pasta we got at the little cafe across from our hotel in Rome was delicious. It was basic, no frills food, but way better than what we’d expect here from a tiny corner store with a small kitchen. Rome, mainly, was touristy, we only had three days there, I’d never been there before and didn’t know my way around and it is such a giant city that I found it difficult to find really good local food, save for a few places. I got my best meal in Rome on the less-crowded main drag of the Jewish ghetto (if you’re there in season, get the carciofi alla giudia–Jewish-style artichokes–and revel in your very good fortune).

Carciofi alla Giudia–so, soooo good.

Though I do confess that I was close to tears when I walked into a Roman farmer’s market.  I could move there for the produce.

And Venice…ahh, Venice…though I love you love you love you, much of the Venetian cuisine is seafood oriented (not a surprise, as it is one big lagoon on the Adriatic), and I have a shellfish allergy. While I could have gotten risotto ai frutti di mare just about anywhere, and it looked lovely, to order it would be to order a plate of death.  What can I say?  I stuck with the chicken.  I do remember having a particularly tasty, fresh tiramisu soaked in Frangelico, which I should go about trying to re-create here for my own benefit and edification.  Mostly benefit.

But…Florence.

*sigh*

When we got to Florence it was probably 1:30 or so in the afternoon and by the time we brought our stuff up to our hotel room and had a moment to relax, it was almost 2:00.  We needed to get some food before the restaurants closed after lunch, as they so often do.  The desk clerk at our hotel directed us to a small pizza place right down the street, which he assured us was still open though he cautioned us, almost apologetically, that the food was, “Ummm…eh…is OK.”  So, not great but not poisony, and it’s sure to be open?  That’s fine, we’ll deal with it, we thought.

Oh. Migod.

For the record, it was awesome.

Pizza with white beans, pine nuts and potatoes may sound like a carb-laden nightmare but it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  And that square bowl sitting behind it?  Held a fresh fava bean soup with plenty of garlic that neither of us could resist tearing into, as much as one can “tear into” soup. We topped it off with a local wine and thought, if this restaurant gets a “is OK” from the locals, then what other sort of delights were there in store?

There were plenty of delights, to be sure.  Sometimes, I didn’t take pictures because it’s just as important to me to engage in the experience at hand rather than look at it from behind a camera. The food would still be there when the camera was gone, sure, but the moment to sit down, hold hands, look over a wine list and have an intimate dinner that doesn’t include your camera as a third party would be lost. Trust me on a few things you can learn without the benefit of photographs: when you’re in Florence, go to the Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi (the Trattoria of the 13 Hunchbacks) and hope to God you can get the fried zucchini flowers.  Try the baked cannelloni or the rigatoni.  It’s all good.  When you’re done and looking for dessert, find a gelateria that advertises its gelato as “produzione artiginale” or “produzione propria“, as that means it is made on-site and not shipped in from a factory.

With that being said…back to the picture show.

Where to begin?

Florence is jam-packed with restaurants, and from the few I’ve sampled, they’re all good.  Seriously.  They want to provide quality food  that’s traditionally prepared and if it’s not good, people won’t go, because there are so many other quality places nearby.  The thing about Florentine food is, they tend to make the most of whatever ingredients they can get their hands on.  So we went to Francesco Vini and enjoyed the crazy-rich dish they concocted with the wild boar roaming the Tuscan hills…

Pappardelle al ragu di cinghiale (Pappardelle with wild boar).

…and how fat they made their raviolis, which they sauteed in sage and butter.

Ravioli al burro e salvia.

One night we stopped at Giannino in S. Lorenzo, a lovely little trattoria with a super-cozy atmosphere.  I sort of bullied George into going, I admit, and it was simply because they advertised ravioli di ricotta e spinaci al tartufo nero–spinach and ricotta ravioli in black truffle sauce.

Sold.

I don’t even remember what George got here; I think it was the savory crepes, but I can’t be positive. I was too busy digging this…

Ravioli di ricotta e spinaci al tartufo nero.

…to concern myself with much of anything else.  Truffles?  The answer is yes; what’s your question?

One of our most memorable lunches, though, was when we went to the Tavernetta Della Signoria and feasted on local dishes.  The meal started out oddly; we were walking past what we realized later was their back door, that a cook left open when he took out some garbage (no, we didn’t walk into a kitchen, just a back dining room…I think we would have figured out the kitchen was a wrong turn, much earlier).  It smelled so good, though, we couldn’t resist, followed our noses, and got a beautiful table right on the street so we could eat and people watch at the same time.  We started with world’s biggest salad and some Tuscan white beans (which are a delight–simple food that they cook to godliness)

Salad with grilled vegetables and pecorino cheese; a/k/a the “Cinque”.

Fagioli lessi. One of the best things ever.

George had the gnocchi with gorgonzola, arugula and walnuts

Gnocchi al gorgonzola, rucola e noci.

…while I had the peposo, a traditional regional beef stew that consists of braising an incredibly tough cut of meat for hours in red wine, garlic and a ton of pepper, until it is tender and toe-curlingly delicious.

Peposo.

While all of Italy was tremendous, each part holds something special for me.  In Rome, I got to–literally–walk the same stones that Cleopatra walked in the Roman Forum.  In Venice, I had a cocktail with the ghosts of literary giants at Harry’s.  In Florence, I was given a chance to understand the beauty of good food cooked simply but with pride.  Sure, you can go to Florence for the shopping, but make sure you stay for the food.

Eat What Primo Cooks You, Already

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I love Bolognese sauce.  Ladies, it ain’t no diet food but when you’re faced with food that looks this good, I’d opt in on the side of “worth it”.  And these guys both love it and appear to make a killer version of it.  If I was around?  I would eat what Primo cooked me.  I know I’m hardly the queen of the short blog, but these two guys are having so much fun and the food looks so good, I had to share.  Enjoy!

Nosh: Pasta with Baby Beets and Carrots

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I recently joined a CSA and got my first installment of fresh, organic goodies this past Thursday.  Among the bounty was a beautiful portion of baby beets.  Beets have been a source of food forever and ever, and were even historically documented as being present in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  This is a huge text file so if you do click this link, use your browser’s “find” feature and type in the word “beet”, it’s much easier than reading through hundreds of pages of info.

More fun facts about the noble beet:

  • Ancient Romans considered beet juice to be an aphrodisiac.
  • They have been prepared in borscht, by astronauts for astronauts, in zero gravity.
  • Australians add slices of pickled beets to their hamburgers (which sounds fantastic).
  • They’re a major plot device in Tom Robbins’s book Jitterbug Perfume.
Could. Not.  Wait.  To eat them.  And the fun thing about the beet is, the entire thing is edible.  Leaf, stem and root, all perfectly edible.  And all delicious in slightly different ways.  So I cruised the interwebs looking for some kind of recipe and found this one, for beets and pasta.  Which was a great idea and a good starting point, but it’s a recipe for one person and here?  There are two, and we dig leftovers.  Don’t worry.  I’ll tell you what I did.
Before I go one step further, do you have some feta hanging around the house?  If you do…before you do anything else…stick it in the freezer.  Yes, that’s right, the freezer, and all will be revealed in due time.  If not, a hard, shreddy cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano (the undisputed king of cheeses) or asiago will work just fine and doesn’t need to be frozen.  Put it down!  It can stay in your cheese drawer in the fridge.  Anyway.  Back to the cooking.
First, clean and prep your beets.  Rinse them off and sort them by beetylicious component, as they will go into the pan at different times.  It’s just easier this way.

Leaf, stem and root, cleaned and ready for action.

Tackle the roots first, and by roots I mean, the round, knobby thing most of us consider to be the entirety of the item “beet”, without regard for stems and leaves.  Cut off the taproot (the long thing coming off the bottom of the beet) while you peel your beets.  Here are a few things to remember:

Beets leak their juice and can leave a significant stain.  If you don’t want your hands to get covered in beet juice, wear rubber gloves.  If you don’t mind, don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.  When the beets are older–and especially if I roast them before peeling–I always wear gloves, and I usually cut them on a plastic board I won’t mind throwing away if it gets too gnarly.  Beet juice was used as a hair dye for a reason.  But in this instance?  Meh.  It wasn’t too bad.  Also, I was worried that a vegetable peeler would take too much of the beet with it, and I thought about just leaving the skins on (which I’m sure would be fine) but here’s a tip: baby beet skins are so tender, you can peel them with a spoon, like you do with ginger.

Peel and trim, easy-peasy.

Slice your trimmed beets into rounds (or half-moons, if needed).  The objective is to have roughly, sort of, uniform pieces of beet so they cook evenly.  Make them so.

I admittedly am a cook by “feel”, so here, my directions can get a little dicey, but I’ll be happy to estimate sizes if you want them.  I used half a medium-sized Vidalia onion, three garlic cloves (because I can’t help myself) and a really good handful of baby carrots.  No, I didn’t use baby carrots because these are baby beets and I thought it would be cute to eat “baby” food.  Baby carrots, FYI, are not young carrots at all but rather, mature carrots that are too unattractive to sell to the buying public and so are whittled down to create the illusion of young carrothood.  And I used them because I had about a quarter of a bag that was in my fridge for a really long time.  I snacked on some as I chopped.  There’s probably about a cup’s worth of carrots here, use whatever you have handy.

Yes, they’re arranged in order from light to dark. What of it?

Next?  Into a nice, big pan.  One with lots of room.  You’ll see.  Give them a few minutes to get their saute on in some olive oil and then toss in some herbs.   Salt and pepper, of course (but watch the salt!  You’ve still got cheese to add), and some fennel seed, rosemary (probably about a teaspoon each, but don’t get too crazy because these herbs are pungent and can easily take over a dish), maybe a half a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, a dash of nutmeg (if I used a quarter teaspoon I’ll fall over in shock) and bay leaf.

Can you feel the anticipation build?

While this sautes, chop the beet stems.  Don’t chop them larger than an inch; just cut them into nice, bite-sized portions.

Stems. Ready for the pan.

While you’re chopping, take care of the leaves, too.  They will wilt to a fraction of their uncooked size, like spinach, so you don’t have to sweat how small they’re chopped.  Just stack the leaves and cut across their width.

Ahhh, beautiful beet leaf ribbons.  Both festive and nommy.

Yes, astute readers, those are indeed a small handful of chopped snow peas on the left-hand side of the cutting board.  Because why not?  They were a fun addition, but not integral to the overall flavor of the dish.  Don’t knock yourself out getting some, but by all means chop ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.

Once the stems have cooked for about five minutes, add your greens and a touch more salt and pepper.

Things will start happening pretty quickly once these go in the pan, so be ready.

What sort of pasta are you using?  When you put the leaves in to cook, the pasta should be about five minutes away from doneness.  If you’re using packaged pasta, it should already be cooking.  If you’re using fresh, the water should be boiling and you should put your pasta in pretty much any minute now.  I had fresh whole-wheat fettuccine, which took maybe three or four minutes to cook.  The best way to test your pasta is to just taste a strand.  Having a mouth is like having your very own built-in timer.

Homemade whole-wheat fettuccine. Life is gooooood.

I gave him the pasta maker for Christmas, but I get to reap the benefits.  Win!  And I digress.

Pasta is boiling?  Check!  Give the beets a minute to cook and then put in a little bit of water or stock–enough to give the veggies something to hang out in, not enough to make it even a little bit soupy.  A quarter-cup is probably sufficient, don’t use more than a half.  (Me?  I “measure” by passing a box of stock around the edge of the pan.  Twice.)  Give that a good stir, make sure anything that’s started to brown to the bottom of the pan has scraped up, and let it simmer together for the aforementioned five minutes.

Before you drain the pasta (which is now, of course, perfectly cooked al dente), save about a half-cup of the pasta water and toss it in with the beets as necessary.  You might not need the whole thing, and that’s fine.  You just want your veggie saute to come together as a sauce, and the starchy water facilitates that.  Also, throw a tablespoon of butter in with the beets; it really “finishes” your sauce and gives it an added boost of homey, sweet warmth.  I added the butter as an almost-afterthought (“Hey, this might be a good idea…”), and was so glad I did.

Now that you’ve starchy-watered your pan, and the butter has melted, add your drained pasta to the pan and pull all the goodies through so the pasta is evenly coated with sauce.  Put it in your serving bowl.

Almost perfect. Almost.

adore how the beets dominated the color profile of the sauce and dyed the pasta pink.  Looks good, yeah?  But we’re not done yet.  Remember when I told you to freeze your feta?  Crumbly cheeses such as feta (or bleu, though I don’t care for bleu cheese and I know you’re all horrified and I swear I have tried to enjoy it but when I eat bleu cheese it only results in tears) don’t shred well…because they crumble, see?…but if they’re frozen, they can be grated on a traditional grater and it looks like you have a beautiful soft topping of snow.

Now THAT is what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

If you don’t have a hunk of frozen feta at your disposal, now is when you top this with one of the other cheeses I mentioned earlier.  It’s all good.

This was fresh, delicious, about as local as I can make something without becoming a subsistence farmer (which, God no, see my previous statements about my black thumb, I would starve and thank you CSA people!), pretty, and jammed with veggies so generally, quite nutritionally sound.  Serve it with a side salad just so you can kick your recommended daily vegetable intake in the butt as you blow past it.  George said, “I just…feeeeeel like I’m eating something good for me, you know?”  Local, groovy, tasty, AND good for you?  Win, win, and extra double-win.  Enjoy.

Nosh: Pappardelle with Leeks

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I love me some leeks.  They’re oniony but mild, savory, and always delicious.  The noble leek is the national symbol of Wales (along with the daffodil, and that really cool dragon on their flag), and the Welsh wear leeks on St. David’s Day (March 1st).  Attached to their clothes.  I mean, they don’t make shirts out of them or anything, but they like leeks enough to pin them to themselves and walk around smelling of onions for religious purposes.  I don’t claim to understand it, people, I just provide information.

But you'd look so nice in some delicious emblems of Welsh culture!

Because they are inherently delicious, a simple saute of leeks in butter has the potential to make a believer out of a person, and there’s a distinct possibility that at the beginning of March you’ll affix some produce to yourself and try to develop an interest in rugby, so do consider yourself warned.  They’re THAT good.  How do you make that even better?  Serve them over pasta.

I am admittedly of the opinion that most things are better over pasta.  And I don’t apologize.  So without further ado, pappardelle with leeks.

The first thing to do is clean your leeks.  If you’ve never cooked with leeks, DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED.  Leeks are deceptively easy to clean.  You need five of them for this dish, so you’ll get plenty of practice.  Leeks like to grow in loose, sandy soil, so grit gets trapped between the layers of onion-like, leeky goodness.  You also only want to eat the white and light green parts, as they are tender–the dark green parts of the leaves are kind of woody and inedible.  So what do you do?  In order to prevent wasting deliciousness and get at as much of the heart of the leek as possible, you need to hack into the leek.  Upward, from where the dark green starts, at a pretty sharp angle.  Your knife should be positioned something like this:

Pretend you're sharpening stakes so you can hunt vampires.

Once you’ve got your vampire stakes sharpened, cut them in half lengthwise and put them in a large bowl of water.  I do recommend swishing them around, changing the water once and swishing them again but literally, if you put them in water and swish, the water will do the work for you and pull the grit out.

All's well in the water bath.

And then seriously, you can let them hang out in the water for however long it takes for you to get to the cooking part.

Next, start working on the bread crumbs.  Once you get used to this recipe you can certainly work on both parts of this dish at the same time, but bread crumbs can be tricky to work with as they can go in the space of about twenty seconds from golden-toasty to burnt beyond recognition, so unless you’re used to working with bread crumbs, do the parts of the dish separately.  Anyway.

First, take a handful of dried mushrooms.  You want ones that are strong and really…you know…mushroomy.  Sometimes ‘shrooms can be a little fruity, but for this you want something with a flavor that gets in yo’ face.  You can pretty much always find dried shiitakes in the stores (yes, even in the ‘burg, people, check the produce departments) so they’re fine.  I had some beautiful dried porcini on hand, so those were what I used.

Just a handful will do.

Chop them up.  They’re dried, so they come to pieces pretty quickly.  And then?  Into a pan with some olive oil, a few (as in, two) cloves of garlic and two healthy sprigs of fresh rosemary.

Mmm, good stuff's on the horizon.

Since garlic can also turn ugly on you pretty quickly, keep this at medium heat and keep an eye on it.  Once the garlic starts to brown and you really smell the rosemary, put in about a cup of bread crumbs.  Of course, use salt and pepper to taste, but go easy on the salt as the bread and/or prepackaged breadcrumbs probably have a decent amount of salt in them already.

Here’s where the debate comes in: food purists will say that you should grind your own breadcrumbs out of stale bread.  Less fastidious types will want to use canned bread crumbs they can get at the grocery store.  I’ve made this both ways, and frankly, fresh breadcrumbs are better but canned are fine.  If texture matters a great deal to you, remember that fresh crumbs will probably create a more nubbly texture while the store-bought will be more uniform, as the chances are pretty good you, personally, won’t grind the crumbs quite as small as a giant machine.  Just please…for the love of all that is holy…use the unseasoned ones if you go canned.  Saute all this together until the bread crumbs turn golden and toasty, and then put them aside until you need them.  And remember to pull the whole rosemary sprigs out of the crumbs before you try to use them.

Aromatic, toasty, and ready to be put aside until you need them.

(Note: don’t leave them in the pan, either, as the residual heat of the pan could easily turn the bread crumbs from golden deliciousness to smoking burnt mess pretty easily.  So put them in a bowl and set them aside.  You’ll be better off for it.)

And so, back to the leeks.  They have been trimmed.  They have been cleaned.  They have hung out in the water for however long it’s taken.  And now?  It’s time.

The first thing to do is pull them out of the water and let them drain while you chop the garlic and herbs in which you will cook them and if you haven’t figured this out by now, if you’re not a fan of garlic you probably won’t eat much at my house.  But I digress.  Two more cloves of garlic, another two sprigs of rosemary (or three, if you just can’t help yourself) and a few sprigs of thyme (maybe a teaspoon’s worth of dried, two of fresh) will be fine.  I’ve often heard people ask how they should chop fresh herbs since they don’t know what to do with them.  Here, have a look:

Have at them. For real.

These are not scary things.  They’re leaves.  If you’re not trying to achieve a special “look” with an herb, if you don’t want a chiffonade or need to preserve the way the leaf meets the stem for some reason, then pull them off their twigs, pile them all together, and (here’s my secret) run your knife through them.  They get smaller each time you apply your knife!  Promise.   Then cut the leeks into roughly-quarter-inch slices.  Get a very large pan going with some butter and some olive oil (best of both worlds–why not?) and put the leeks and garlic and herbs in, as well as a sprinkling of red pepper flakes (to taste, you can leave them out if you’d like) and salt and pepper.

Leeks, preparing for the final saute.

After a few minutes (five or eight or so, depending on how soft the leeks are looking, as you want them to look fairly soft) you can put in some liquid.  If I have a dry white wine on hand, opened yet unfinished, I’ll put that in…though I often don’t, because A) I am a red wine girl and B) an opened and unfinished bottle of wine?  In my house?  Not so much.  Again, if it’s in, it tastes better but if you don’t have any (or would like to choose not to use wine), it’s pretty well delicious without.  You can always put in some vinegar if you want the acidic bite that wine would provide, but carefully consider your vinegar flavor.  Try to keep it relatively mild–champagne or white wine vinegar are always fine options, and don’t use more than about a quarter-cup.  If you do opt for the wine, you don’t need more than a  half-cup, and then finish this step with some vegetable broth if you’re keeping it vegetarian, or chicken stock if you’re not.  How much stock do you use?  Remember, you’re not making soup, you’re not making broth, you just want to give the leeks enough liquid to hang out in.  Cover and cook another 15-ish minutes, until the leeks are nice and soft, and then uncover and let some of the steam evaporate.

While the leeks cook, you should also cook your pasta, so at some point get a pot of boiling water going on the stove.  And a word about pappardelle:

Pappardelle are wide ribbons of pasta that can be viciously difficult to find in stores.  If you don’t have the benefit of a live-in pasta maker

That's him, not me.

then I recommend one of three things:

1) Get a pasta machine and learn how to do it so you never have to encounter this situation again.

2) Look for fresh pasta sheets (i.e., fresh lasagna) and cut those into ribbons.

3) Use tagliatelle or fettucine or whatever wide-ish noodle the good people of Barilla or Ronzoni or Weis Markets have already prepared for you.  The main point is, don’t serve this with squat noodles, like rotini or penne.  Go for long, and as wide as possible.  Leeks are assertive, so you need a pasta that can stand up to them.

And so, once you’ve cooked and drained your pasta, put it into the very large pan the leeks have cooked in, and mix your leeks and pasta all together.  Pour that into a bowl and top with some-but-not-all of the bread crumbs; give yourself and your fellow diners the ability to supplement their individual bread crumb supply, particularly when you consider that the longer the crumbs are in contact with the liquid the leeks are in, the softer they’ll get.  Part of the fun of this dish comes from the way the different elements of this dish impart different textures and characters, so you don’t want to dump all the bread crumbs on there and lose their crunch.  Top with some parmigiano reggiano (or any other hard cheese), and use a vegetable peeler to shave the cheese off in strips if you like how that looks.  Serve this with a salad and some braised kale.  Yeah.  Dig it.

And...what will you be eating? 'cause this is mine.