Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What’s cooking? Three-Pea Pasta with Herbs and Pancetta

There’s a funny smell in my garage. (I know that’s an unusual beginning for a food blog. The mind goes where the mind wants to go...) Probably a critter that got in by mistake and couldn’t find the way out. But ignorance is bliss, and that’s pretty much the approach my prince and I take when it comes to projects we’d just as soon not shoulder. For a couple of weeks now, we go out to the car and he says to me, “Do you still smell it? Because I don’t much.” And I say, “Yes, I definitely smell it. We have to investigate.” And then we get in the car and leave.

I have lots of friends who know how to focus on such issues. When they see a problem, they get right down to it. We are not in that camp, unless the problem is something like changing a light bulb, and even then I can think of at least one bulb that’s been out for a while. If it’s golf- or wine- or music-related, he’ll gladly tackle it. And if it’s food- or cooking-related, I’m on it like white on rice. So it’s not that we’re lazy. At least, I hope it’s not. We just neither of us want to charge into an experience that’s guaranteed to be unpleasant.

To my mate’s credit, if we knew where the critter was – like in the middle of the driveway – he’d find a shovel and some newspaper and get rid of the thing. But the idea of poking around in the recesses of the garage, and hoping that nothing jumps out, ... even just that moment of discovery... Not our thing.

What we need is an assistant. Some go-getter type. Well organized. A person of action. We’ve got both Siri and Alexa, and neither of them can actually do a damn thing. I want to say, “Alexa, change the lightbulb in my bathroom.” “Siri, find the source of that smell in the garage.” But no, they just sit there. We can do that much.

For certain activities, we’ve found that if we hang out with the right friends, we don’t have to be action people. We can take advantage of their organizational skills. For social activities, a couple of our friends often come up with fun dinner-type experiences. For travel, others are amazingly good at planning golf or sightseeing trips. Last fall, when a group of us went to Sicily, the house we stayed in and the sites we visited were all figured out by others on the trip. We believe every group needs a few Type B personalities, and that is our contribution. We pack our bags and go where we’re told. No whining, no complaining, no suggesting.

But so far, none of our friends has stepped forward to find the dead critter in the garage. If you know anyone who’d consider taking that on, please tell them to give me a call. I’ll make dinner.

* * *

Speaking of which, I made the loveliest pasta the other night. The grocery stores are finally offering real spring veggies, like snow peas and sugar snap peas and English peas, though I must confess that I haven’t actually found any English peas. In making this dish, I substituted frozen peas, and thought neither the taste nor the texture suffered.

The other great thing about this recipe is the use of herbs. While I took the sage and parsley and mint from my kitchen garden, they’re all available in great quantity at the stores now. The heady aroma of all those herbs, combined with the nice crunch of the pea pods, made this dish a real celebration of spring. The ricotta salata – ricotta cheese that has been pressed, dried, and salted, and which tastes like a very mild feta cheese – provides a nice, lightly tart accent, but the dish is also terrific without it if you’re not into cheese.

The recipe comes from Melissa Clark of The New York Times, and Ms. Clark developed it to use with farro pasta. But the Kitchen Goddess is not into scouring the planet for such specialized ingredients, so she used whole wheat fusilli and was very satisfied. (I will say that the color of the whole wheat pasta works really well with the peas.) I also added the mushrooms, just because it seemed like a good idea – and it was! I served it to friends – who were effusive with their praise – as one of my “guinea pig” dinners, with French bread and my favorite citrus salad, orange slices with black olive tapenade and fennel seeds. A terrific light meal that takes almost no time to prepare. And you’ll love the leftovers. Spring into it!

Kitchen Goddess notes: (1) Pancetta is just Italian bacon, made from pork belly, salt cured and jazzed up with black pepper and other spices. It’s sometimes eaten raw, but not in this dish. It comes in a spiral shape, which makes it a little funky to slice; but it’s really flavorful, so you should try some. Get it at the deli counter.

(2) Almost all the work in this recipe comes from trimming the little ends off the snow peas and the strings and tips off the sugar snap peas, which is a bit tedious but certainly not hard. And because the peas should be eaten firm-tender, the sauce takes almost no time to cook. So if you get your mise en place – peas trimmed, pancetta chopped, scallions sliced, herbs shredded, lemon zested, etc. – you can start the pasta before you even put the olive oil into the skillet. By the time the pasta is al dente, the rest of the dish will be ready to go.

Three-Pea Pasta with Herbs and Pancetta

Adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times.

Serves 6.

1 pound whole wheat fusilli or other pasta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta (or bacon), 2-3 thick slices, cut crosswise into strips about ⅜-inch wide
3 tablespoons butter at room temperature, separated
4 ounces fresh morel mushrooms (or crimini mushrooms), sliced
1½ cups thinly sliced scallions (white and light green parts), about 2 trimmed bunches
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2½  tablespoons fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
1½ cups frozen peas (not thawed) or shelled English peas
8 ounces sugar snap peas, strings removed and ends trimmed
6 ounces snow peas, ends trimmed
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 teaspoon)
2 heaping tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
2 heaping tablespoons roughly chopped mint
2 ounces (about ¼ cup) ricotta salata or mild feta cheese, crumbled

In a large pot of well salted water, cook the pasta until it is just al dente. Before you drain the pasta, reserve 2 cups of the pasta water for use with the sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil on medium-high in a large skillet, and add the pancetta. Cook, stirring, for 5-6 minutes, until it starts crisping and turning brown. Use a slotted spoon to remove it to a plate or bowl, but leave the skillet on medium-high heat.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter, and when it sizzles, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 4-5 minutes. Add the scallions, Aleppo pepper, and sage to the skillet and stir well for about a minute, to distribute the oil on the scallions. Stir in the peas (all three kinds), and season well with salt and pepper. Cook the vegetables, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until the peas (all three kinds) are barely tender.

Stir the drained pasta into the pan, along with about a cup of the reserved pasta water. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Gently toss the pasta and the veggies as they cook, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Continue to simmer the mixture until the pasta has reached a just-done stage and the veggies are still only fork-tender, adding more pasta water as needed. (This is a personal preference thing: If all the liquid has been absorbed and it seems like the pasta is still too al dente for your taste, use that extra cup of pasta water.)

Turn off the heat, and add the butter and the reserved pancetta. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon zest, parsley, and mint until well combined. Toss the mixture gently with the pasta, and season again with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the pasta in large shallow bowls. Sprinkle the ricotta salata on top.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Tilting at Windmills
What’s cooking? Date Shakes

Just to be clear, I don’t actually have imaginary enemies, but I really wanted windmills in the headline, and that’s all that came to mind. I might, on the other hand, have a few imaginary friends. Have to think about that one.

My hubby and I recently returned from the latest in a series of biennial reunions among his college friends and their wives. Yes, you heard me correctly: biennial. Every two years for the last decade, we’ve gotten together with this group – guys my mate lived with his junior and senior years, plus their wives – in various places around the country, depending on who was foolish enough to volunteer as host. And if you’re wondering, yes, we hosted four years ago, and it was such fun, I/we have actually offered to do it again.

This year, we went to Palm Springs, where we took over a delightful boutique hotel called The Monkey Tree. We played golf and croquet (not your grandfather’s game – this one on whites-only, tightly manicured lawns), swam, hiked, biked, shopped, and generally shot the breeze for four days.

Then we found the windmills. Someone got the idea of touring the windmill farm in Desert Hot Springs, just outside Palm Springs on US10. Totally amazing. We learned more, really, than we even wanted to know about the history of wind power generation and the renewable energy industry; but being a massively geeky group, we loved it. It turns out that the San Gorgonio Pass, the gateway into Coachella Valley which extends southeast from Palm Springs, is one of the windiest places in California. So it’s a natural habitat for the more than 4,000 windmills there.

Just to give you some perspective on the size of these puppies.

At the end of the tour, the bus stopped at this place, Windmill Market, a few miles west of town on a barren stretch of Indian Canyon Drive. Where we were all treated to date shakes. OMG. The Kitchen Goddess was in heaven. Big, gloppy milkshakes like we used to get at the local drugstore soda fountain, where you sat on stools that twirled and watched while they poured milk and ice cream into those big metal cups. Oh, my. And these drinks were flavored with dates grown nearby, at Leja Farms.

Now, before you get all “ewww-y” on me about the dates, let me say that there must have been 25 people at this little store, and every single one of them guzzled those shakes down like there was no tomorrow.

So of course, the KG had to try it at home. And she has two versions that you will absolutely love. She won’t promise they’re as good as the ones from Windmill Market, where you can slurp their cool, creamy sweetness while gazing at the San Bernadino Mountains and the swanlike grace of the giant wind turbines. Like that fresh clams oreganata you had on the Amalfi Coast, the atmosphere gets a lot of credit for improving the taste. But first...

More than you ever wanted to know about dates: The dates to use are Medjool dates, larger and thinner-skinned than most other varieties. The fruit is rich in dietary fiber, which prevents LDL cholesterol absorption, and high in iron (oxygen in blood), potassium (heart rate and blood pressure), and B-vitamins (eye health). Coachella Valley is the date capital of the U.S. More than 90 percent of dates harvested in the U.S. are grown there.

I could go on, but will limit myself to this one cute story. Historically, dates have long been an essential element in Middle Eastern diets; evidence of date palm cultivation has been found that goes as far back as 4000 BC. But they aren’t native to the U.S. At the turn of the 20th century, when USFDA experts were looking for ways to expand U.S. agriculture, they noted that the climate and soil conditions in the Coachella Valley were similar to those of Algeria, so they arranged for 9,000 Arabian palms to be shipped to California. Most recently, palms in Morocco and Algeria have been practically wiped out by disease, and some Americans have returned the favor by sending healthy stock back to its homeland. Maybe this is how we achieve world peace.

Kitchen Goddess note: When you make your shake, you’ll notice that it doesn’t really look like enough for 2 people. I say it serves 2 because it’s very rich and very filling. Which is not to say you can’t just drink the whole thing yourself. The KG, in fact, downed a whole batch for breakfast on the day she made these, without even an ounce of regret. But she did feel much like oinking for most of the morning.

Date Shake

Adapted from Kim Severson in The New York Times (October 19, 2010)

Serves 2.

4 pitted Medjool dates, coarsely chopped
½ cup cold milk (whole, low-fat, or skim, though whole is the choice for the richest drugstore fountain experience)
1-1¼ cups good vanilla ice cream
Optional garnishes: whipped cream, a few gratings of nutmeg

Combine the dates with half of the milk in a blender, and blend on high speed until the dates are smoothly puréed. Add the ice cream and the rest of the milk and blend until well incorporated and smooth. Pour and enjoy.

And now for a slightly different take on the same concept...

Creamsicle Date Shake

Serves 2.

Instead of the cold milk, make your date shake with fresh orange juice and vanilla ice cream.