Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Bright Ideas
What’s cooking? Creamy Corn Pasta with Basil and Mint

As much as I honor the brave men and women who’ve given their lives for our country, Memorial Day inevitably reminds me of the end of the school year. At least, that’s when it ended when I was in school. We had no spring break, so no need to extend the year to recoup those days.

By the time I got through college, I figured I was done with school. (I wasn’t, but I thought I was.) Then I started work. On Wall Street. In research. I knew nothing, about corporate America or the securities business. Which worried me. Then I realized that, in research, what you do is learn. And in the process of learning about the stock market and the economy and financial instruments, I also learned how much I enjoy learning.

This awareness would come as a surprise to most of my college professors. But I was young when they knew me, and my frontal cortex – that place where judgment and higher level thinking take place – was still in the framing stage.

I still enjoy learning, and in that regard, I’ve recently become addicted to podcasts, downloadable audio files that you can play on your phone or tablet or computer. They don’t provide in-depth knowledge on any topic, but I’m not looking for any advanced degrees, so the “interesting tidbits” approach works fine for me. I subscribe to the ones I like best, so the updates come to me wirelessly and automatically, and I listen to them on my car stereo system through a Bluetooth connection with my phone. Twenty-first century magic. How cool is that?

Here’s my list:

This American Life – Journalistic non-fiction stories, ranging from thought-provoking to humorous
Freakonomics Radio – Discussion of socioeconomic issues for a general audience
Serious Eats – Conversations on food and life with food world professionals
The Sporkful – Passionate discussions about ridiculous food minutiae
Radiolab – Broad-based documentaries weaving stories and science and philosophy
Science Friday – News and stories about science
TED Radio Hour – New ways to think, based on talks from the world-renowned TED stage
The Splendid Table – James Beard Award- winning program on culinary culture and lifestyle
From Scratch – Interviews about the entrepreneurial life with pioneers in business and the arts
Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me! – Humorous panel game show based on current events

So, foodwise, what have I learned? Now, if your eyes are glazing over and you’re wondering if I’m ever going to get to a recipe, the answer is yes. So you can skip down to it now, or maybe you’d like to learn something, too, today...

1. Would you even guess that canned tomatoes are better for us than fresh, locally harvested heirloom varieties? (Amazing, yes? The Kitchen Goddess is having a bit of trouble with this one. She believes the science, but still plans to marinate herself in fresh NJ tomatoes this summer.) Lycopene, the heart-healthy, cancer-fighting nutrient that gives tomatoes (and watermelon and bell peppers) their red color – needs to be heated for best absorption by our bodies. With that in mind, investigative journalist/health writer Jo Robinson says the best product in the grocery store – for lycopene – is tomato paste.

2. Also from Robinson, some vegetables lose their nutrients faster than others. She calls them the “Eat Me First” foods – on the assumption that you shop only once a week and purchase your supply of veggies in one shopping trip. (Ha! The KG has been trying – without success – to do that for ... a lot of years.) So here they are: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, kale, leeks, lettuce, and spinach. For the most nutrients, you want to eat those foods in the first two days after purchase. For broccoli and kale, in particular, less cooking is best. Robinson says the optimum way to cook vegetables for nutrition is microwave steaming, as short a time as possible. Cooked carrots on the other hand, give you twice as much beta-carotene as raw ones.

[Here’s a tiny Kitchen Goddess recommendation: When you buy broccoli, cook only the flowering head. Use a peeler to remove the tough outer skin from the thick stems (which are almost sweet), and cut them into batons to use for dipping into your favorite crudité dressing. Like this...]

3. Acidic foods – wine/beer, vinegar, and lemon juice, in particular – are a great way to balance the richness or saltiness of a dish. So if you have a soup or sauce that’s too rich, it’s not a surprise that adding a squeeze of lemon or a teaspoon of vinegar or wine will help. But what if a soup is too salty? Same advice: add some lemon or vinegar. Rebalancing the tastes will enhance all the flavors in the dish.

4. You like scrambled eggs for breakfast? You’ll have the lightest, fluffiest eggs if you add salt to the eggs, then let them sit 15 minutes before cooking them. The KG scoffed at this one until she tried it. Yessirree. Try it yourself.

5. If you’re into making pasta, try making it with egg yolks only – no whites – for a more tender pasta. That’s a recommendation of pasta wizard Missy Roberts, the chef/owner of Lilia in Brooklyn. But even if you’re cooking the dried stuff, she says:
(a) Salt the water. About 2 teaspoons of salt per quart of water (it should taste like the ocean) is the most important factor in cooking the pasta. No oil in the water. If you’re concerned about the pasta sticking together, just stir it frequently.
(b) Be sure to add some of the pasta water to the sauce; pasta water contains starch that helps bind the sauce to the pasta.
(c) Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce – i.e., give the pasta dough an opportunity to absorb the sauce in its final minutes of cooking.
(d) Finally, in serving pasta, add only as much sauce to the bowl as can be handled by the pasta – it should never be swimming in sauce.

* * *

Sooooo.... speaking of pasta. Here’s a perfect dinner for one of those nights when you really aren’t up for much effort. Which describes – even for the Kitchen Goddess – a lot of nights.

I found this recipe last summer in the height of corn season, but I didn’t get around to it until just recently. I’d seen corn on the cob in my grocery store, but it was surely not from any place local. So you want to keep this dish in mind when the fresh stuff actually makes an appearance in July. But for now – when you really want to feel like summer – most of this corn is going to get pulverized, so who really cares if you use fresh or frozen?

Orecchiette on left, farfalle on right.
You’ll be amazed to find no milk or cream in the dish, but the heart of the sauce is nothing more than corn and scallions cooked to complete tenderness, then buzzed smooth in a blender. Layer on the toasty flavors of brown butter and caramelized corn, then tang it up with basil and mint and lemon. Toss in some salty,umami-filled Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you will not be able to stop eating it. The New York Times’s Melissa Clark, who originated the recipe, uses orecchiette (the little ear-shaped pasta), but the Kitchen Goddess prefers farfalle (bow-tie pasta). Use whatever you like, but choose a shape that’s got plenty of surface to hang onto that sauce.

And if you needed an added incentive, I should tell you that it cooks in 30 minutes. That doesn’t count the time it takes you to get your s*** together – assembling the ingredients and that little bit of chopping. But not a lot of time, really.

Creamy Corn Pasta with Basil and Mint

Adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times.

Serves 4.

I augmented my scallion greens with fresh chives.
Kosher salt
12 ounces dry pasta (orecchiette or farfalle or your choice)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 bunch scallions (about 8), trimmed and thinly sliced (separate the white parts from the green)
2 cups corn kernels (frozen or from two large ears)
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for serving
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
⅓ cup combination basil and mint, torn or in a chiffonade*, plus extra for garnish
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
Juice and zest of one lemon

*[Kitchen Goddess note: Chiffonade is a slicing technique for fresh herbs: stack the leaves 8-10 at a time, then roll the stack up like a cigar, and slice them thinly. It produces a lovely, fluffy pile of thin ribbons. If you need photos, go here.]

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and stir in salt (2 teaspoons per quart of water). Add the pasta and cook until it is 1-2 minutes away from being al dente. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta water, and drain the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large skillet and add the scallion whites with a pinch of salt. Saute the scallions for 3-4 minutes, stirring, until soft, then add ½ cup of the pasta water and all but ¼ cup of the corn. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook 5 minutes, until the corn is tender.

Transfer the mixture to a blender, along with another ½ cup of pasta water and purée 1-2 minutes on high, until the mixture is smooth. If it seems too thick to pour easily, add more pasta water. Add ¼ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of black pepper, and blend briefly to combine.

In the same skillet you used to simmer the corn, melt the butter over medium heat and add the reserved ¼ cup of corn. Cook, stirring, until the corn is tender, which will take about 2 minutes. You want the butter and the corn both to brown, but be aware that the corn will pop some as it caramelizes, so use a long wooden spoon to stir the corn, and stand back from the skillet.

When the corn and butter have browned slightly, reduce the heat and add in the puréed corn sauce. Stir to combine and cook on low heat until the mixture is evenly heated.

Add in the pasta and raise the heat to medium. Add more pasta water if the mixture seems too thick, and cook another minute. Add the scallion greens (about ¼ cup – and you can augment with fresh chives if your scallion greens aren’t up to par), the Parmesan, the basil/mint, the Aleppo pepper (or chili flakes), and ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Stir to combine well and sprinkle over the lemon juice. Stir again – lightly – and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, garnishing with extra herbs, scallions, and the lemon zest. If you have a good olive oil handy, you can drizzle a little over the top.

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