Sunday, March 28, 2010

212. Pasta Primavera (p. 211)

The first day of Spring was last Saturday, and it was an amazingly beautiful day here in New England. We're talking sunny and in the 70s. To celebrate the return of the nice weather, my wife and I took our son for his first trip to the zoo, and for dinner, I made Pasta Primavera. (In true New England fashion, however, this Saturday, the temperatures had dropped back into the 30s. Oh, well, the warm weather was nice while it lasted.)

According to The Book, this recipe comes from Le Cirque, a paragon of the NYC dining scene. (If you've never seen the HBO documentary about the restaurant, Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, it's worth checking out for an interesting insight into the high-end restaurant industry.) I've had several different versions of Pasta Primavera, and some of them have been pretty awful. If this recipe is really the original, as suggested by The Book, it proves that a copy is never quite the same as the masterpiece.

The first ingredient in this list is one ounce of dried morel mushrooms. Not surprisingly, dried morels is not a regular inventory item at your basic suburban supermarket. So, I used dried porcinis. I know that they're not even remotely the same as morels, but according to my research on the Cook's Thesaurus, they were close enough.

To get started, I began soaking the mushrooms in some boiling water to reconstitute. Next I prepped all of my vegetables: I cut some fresh asparagus and green beans into one-inch pieces, I chopped some fresh basil and parsley, I grated some lemon zest, and I halved and quartered some grape tomatoes. Last, I set out some frozen peas to thaw. (I'm totally with The Book on this one. I don't know why, but frozen peas are 100% better than either fresh or canned peas. I use them all the time.)

Then, I got to cooking. I boiled the asparagus, beans and peas in a large pot of salted, boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I scooped the vegetables out with a slotted spoon and transferred them to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. (The Book says to save the vegetable cooking liquid to use to boil the pasta -- a nice unexpected bit of conservation.) Once the vegetables were cooled, I drained them, and sauteed them for just a couple of minutes with some olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.

Wile the pasta boiled (The Book calls for spaghettini), I made the tomato sauce. I cooked some garlic and red pepper flakes in oil, and added the quartered grape tomatoes, cooking them down into a sauce. Then I added some salt and pepper, balsamic vinegar, a bit of water and the halved grape tomatoes and cooked it a bit more.

When the pasta was al dente, I drained it into a colander. Then I added some butter, cream, lemon zest and the reconstituted mushrooms (which I had roughly chopped) to the pasta pot. I simmered it for a little bit and added a ton of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. I added the drained pasta back to the pot and tossed it with the sauce. I thinned out the sauce with a bit of the mushroom soaking liquid ... just enough so that the sauce would lightly coat the pasta without being too wet. Finally, I added the vegetables, the herbs and some toasted pine nuts. I served the pasta topped with some of the tomato sauce.

This dish was pretty labor-intensive, but it did come together pretty quickly once I got started. The effort was worth it, though. The flavors were excellent. The cream sauce was rich without being overwhelming. The mushrooms (even though I didn't use the prescribed morels) gave the dish a certain earthiness. The vegetables and herbs contributed freshness and gave the dish it's namesake "spring-ness." The real star, though, was the tomato sauce. It was rich and deeply flavorful. Very, very good.

Date Cooked: March 20, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Medium, with a bit of prep work and a fast-paced cooking
Rating: A-

Monday, March 15, 2010

211. Orecchiette with Cauliflower and Lacinato Kale (p. 213)

I learned something surprising from making this recipe*: My fourteen-month-old son will eat cauliflower ... and kale ... and ANCHOVIES!

To cook this dish, I first made some fresh breadcrumbs by tearing up an Italian loaf and pulsing the pieces in the food processor until they were coarse crumbs. I toasted the crumbs in the oven for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until they were nice and golden.

Then I cut up a head of cauliflower and cooked it in boiling water until it was very tender. I removed the cauliflower from the water with a slotted spoon, and scooped out about a cup of the cooking liquid and set it aside. Next I coarsely chopped a bunch of kale and boiled it in the remaining cauliflower cooking liquid. The Book says to use Lacinato kale. The sign at the mega mart just said "Kale," so I don't know whether what I bought was Lacinato kale or not, but The Book's Glossary says "Regular kale can be substituted," so I guess it doesn't really matter what kind of kale I ended up with. Once the kale was tender, I drained it and set it aside with the cooked cauliflower.

Then, I put the pasta in to boil. I couldn't find any orecchiette, so I used medium shells since they're the closest I could find in terms of size and shape. While the pasta cooked, I made the sauce. I heated a whole bunch of olive oil over medium-low heat in my largest skillet. I cooked some thinly sliced garlic and some anchovy fillets for just a couple of minutes until the anchovies broke apart. Then I added the cooked cauliflower and mashed it lightly, but leaving some chunks still intact. I stirred in the cooked kale, some chopped fresh parsley and some of reserved cooking liquid. After it just came to a boil, I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper, and took it off the heat.

To finish off the dish, I stirred the drained pasta into the sauce and I added some more fresh parsley and some grated Parmigano-Reggiano. I scooped the pasta into bowls and topped each serving with a generous sprinkling of the toasted breadcrumbs.

This was the perfect Sunday night supper. It's an easy enough recipe that making it is not a big production, but it's still unusual enough that it's "something special." The mashed cauliflower gave the dish an almost creamy texture. The kale was just slightly, but pleasantly bitter. The breadcrumbs were an excellent, crunchy touch. And the anchovies were barely detectable in that there was no fishy flavor, but I'm sure that the dish's briny savoriness was all due to the little fishes. Like I said at the beginning of this post, my son loved this meal ... at it by the fistful! The Book calls for the addition of a Serrano chile, but I left it out since I was going to be serving this to my son, I didn't want it to be too spicy. The Book notes that cooks in Italy use red pepper flakes in this dish instead of the Serrano, so I sprinkled a little over my serving, and it gave it a nice spicy bite.

Date Cooked: March 7, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Easy
Rating: A-

* This recipe isn't online.