Posts Tagged ‘italian’

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A homemade tomato sauce, spring vegetables, and garden beginnings

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Spring Pasta by lkwm on dRc

“I would like to have a garden,” my husband said to me shortly after we were first married.

“Whatever for?” I thought to myself; “There is a grocery and a farmer’s market less than a mile down the road where I can easily buy anything we need, and I have little interest in tilling the ground in my spare time.”

So, like the congenial newlywed I was attempting to be, I said little, and figured this too would pass, as well intended ideas often do.

Cabbage in sunlight

However, come early spring of that first matrimonial year, lo and behold, Brian went out and bought stacks upon stacks of seed starting trays, a pile of organic starter soil bags, and a whole host of seeds – many of which I had never heard nor seen the likes of in all my days.

Yellow pear tomatoes, purple okra, champagne bell peppers, and the most delectable yellow cucumbers, were just a few introductions made.

He pulled out old, dusty card tables and set up camp in the basement, since he was duly cautioned against “starting seeds” in the proper living spaces of my our new nest, with large florescent lights clipped to the innards of our floor joists, lit to nurture and grow the nascent seedlings.

Spring pasta

“What is it that makes you want to start the plants from seed?” I asked, all the while thinking to myself, “The nursery down the street is full of perfectly happy little plants already weeks ahead of these babies, ready and waiting for someone to give them a loving home in the fertile soil of their garden.”

It’s fun to watch things grow,” Brian replied, “Isn’t it amazing that we put the tiniest little seeds in the soil, gave them light and water, and now they are already seedlings? Look at how they lean towards the light. Don’t you just love them?”

Garden broccoliGarden broccoli

Before long, the weather was warming and the seedlings were growing impatient for a new, roomier home in the great outdoors. I still have vivid memories of standing out in our yard that first spring, virgin soil beneath my feet, shovel in hand, fighting back tears as I painstakingly tried to “turn” the dirt beneath.

It is important to know how to grow your own food,” I could hear Brian saying.

Since that time, we have grown wiser, and now Brian rents an actual tiller each spring to help with the hard labor. He calls the garden “Laura’s garden,” but really it is his, and always has been.

Sure, I make trips to the nursery with him, pick the heirloom seeds I want, and the ten new varieties of tomatoes I am compelled to try each summer, I pick some produce, but mainly, I eat the garden – which is why Brian says it is mine.

Garden broccoli in hand

The garden expands each year, last year covering a good 750 square feet with radishes, turnips, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, oodles of hot peppers, mustard greens, lettuces, onions, potatoes, carrots, squash, green beans, bell peppers, sunflowers, all the herbs you could dream of, butter beans, kale, Swiss chard, honeydew, strawberries, watermelon, peas, broccoli, spinach, cucumbers, zucchini…even luffa.

We still have plants growing from the seedlings of that first garden – Greek oregano, sage, cayenne peppers, yellow and orange pear tomatoes.

It’s taken time and perspective to grow on me, but our garden is something I now cherish and eagerly anticipate each year as the last frost of winter gives way to warm sunny spring days. This year we were surprised with forgotten carrots, broccoli, and cabbage emerging from beneath the winter leaves. I have never tasted such sweet carrots, such tender, mild broccoli.

Brian is right, there is nothing like the taste of food from your own garden.

Garden carrotsGarden carrots

With so many spring vegetables coming into season, and planning to take a meal to a friend who just had a baby, I decided to make a pasta with homemade tomato sauce and spring vegetables.

The sauce is a simple saute of onion and one lone carrot in a good glug of olive oil, followed by a gentle simmer with satiny smooth textured San Marzano tomatoes. You could stop here and have yourself one beautiful homemade tomato sauce. But since it is spring, and spring’s bounty is at hand, why not add fresh artichokes, asparagus, spinach, fava beans, and young English peas, simmer another quick spell, and toss it all with a favorite pasta and gratings of fresh parmesan? It just seems like the “fitting” way to do tomato sauce this time of year, as my grandma Ruth would have said.

This sauce tastes bright from the carrot, tomatoes and vegetables, but still maintains a full bodied flavor due to the infusion of olive oil into the onions. I loved it, and I hope you do as well.

Spring pasta

Tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, and carrot

1 28 oz. can whole Itailian Roma style, plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos*
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea or kosher salt to taste

Saute onion and carrot in the olive oil till soft and onion is translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add Tomatoes and simmer for at least 20 minutes, or until sauce is thickened to desired consistency, breaking tomatoes apart with a wooden spoon. Serve over warm pasta with freshly grated pecorino romano cheese

Pasta with spring vegetables
Adapted liberally from Williams Sonoma’s Savoring Tuscany

1 lb. pasta, preferably rigatoni*, cooked according to package directions to al dente, adding 1-2 tablespoons coarse or rock salt to boiling water, pasta water reserved
1 recipe for Tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, and carrot
1 or 2 large fresh artichokes, tough outer leaves pulled off and cut down, hair removed, and heart cut into slices (optional)*
1/2 cup of shelled English peas
1/2 cup young, tender shelled fava (broad) beans or lima beans
1 1/2 cups stemmed spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
12 asparagus spears, tough ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
Sea or kosher salt to taste
freshly ground Parmesan cheese

Prepare the tomato sauce according to the above recipe, adding the artichoke pieces (if using) into the simmering sauce at the same time you add the tomatoes. Begin cooking the pasta, taking care to salt the water and reserve at least half a cup of pasta water once pasta has finished cooking.

Once artichoke slices are tender (10-15 minutes), add the other vegetables and cook in the sauce another five to ten minutes, or until vegetables are cooked and tender.

Toss the sauce with the warm pasta, using small additions of the reserved pasta water to loosen the sauce and achieve desired consistency. Wait to season with salt and pepper (I prefer this sauce without pepper, as the vegetable flavors seem to stand out more this way) until finished adding desired amount of pasta water, as the water should be somewhat salty itself. Serve with the cheese sprinkled on top.

Notes: You may use any pasta for this recipe, though rigatoni or other “forkable” pasta is preferable to the spagetti you see in my pictures. I made it with rigatoni the first time, but was too rushed to take pictures, and only had spaghetti noodles in the house the second go round.

Look for Italian San Marzano tomatoes in the specialty Italian section of your grocery store. I have tried many Italian Roma tomatoes, and none break down and create a smooth, satiny sauce as well as the San Marzanos.

The fresh artichokes are nice in this dish, though they take a bit of work, so you may omit them if desired. I would not substitute canned, since canned artichokes are preserved in vinegar and would alter the entire flavor profile of the sauce. I did add some mushrooms in at the same time as the artichokes the first time around, and they were very good. Really, you could add just about any vegetables you like – or chicken (I added lemon rosemary chicken in the first batch) or shrimp, for that matter.

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Posted in Main Courses - Vegetarian | 26 Comments »

A simple garlic broth with tortellini, tomatoes, and fresh garden herbs, and a lifelong friend, Amy

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Garlic herb soup with tomato and tortellini

There is something very special about the friends, and the foods, of our youth. We tend to carry them close to our hearts, and it is often these tastes, and these friends, that in old age if someone were to ask, “What meal do you wish to be your last?” or, “What friend do you want near?” that would prompt thoughts of cherished dishes from childhood, and of the dear friends kept close from our youth. During a time when we were more naive, more vulnerable, and exploring our identities without the expectations of adultishness holding us back, someone saw something raw, something beautiful, something lovable about us – and chose us. A friend. An Amy.

The story of this soup, of Amy, and of my interests in cooking and art intersect in a beautiful weave that I am happy not to unravel. Although I was acquaintances with Amy early in college, it was not until she lived a few dorm rooms down the hall during our junior year that I truly got to know her. I can still remember her room – light, with a pale soft sea green comforter and white billowy pillows, everything perfectly in its place, it breathed beauty and effortlessness, so unlike my own room – always struggling to keep its clothes in its drawers, and with papers overflowing binders and tucked every-which-way into book sleeves.

Garden rosemaryGarden rosemary

Everything about Amy breathes artistry. Art comprises the essence of her being, and always has, from what I can tell. Wherever Amy goes, whatever Amy does, she creates beauty. She is purposeful, methodical, deliberate, inspiring. Very few people have influenced me like Amy. She is a photographer, a designer and painter, a video editor, a world traveler, a uniquely creative cook, and most importantly, and often undeservingly on my part, a lifelong friend.

And it is Amy who first made me this soup about a decade ago when we became roommates the summer after that junior year in college, and I still make it several times a year. I’d say this is a lifelong soup.

Garlic smashed

The base of the soup is a simple garlic broth created by crushing and sautéing a whole head of garlic in a bit of olive oil, just until the garlic has infused the oil and is no longer raw, but not yet brown, and then vegetable or chicken stock is added, along with a few sprigs of fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, and a handful of fresh parsley.

We keep an herb garden not far from our kitchen out the back door, where I tend to use whatever fresh herbs are thriving and available. In this case, rosemary, oregano, and sage.


From here, the soup can take many forms. You can add a wide variation of vegetables, greens, beans, pastas, chicken or tofu, or even a bit of saffron, but the addition of tomatoes and tortellini is how Amy introduced it to me, and thus it has become my way.

At its heart, it is a variation of the classic Italian dish “Tortellini en brodo” or “tortellini in broth” and it is one of the most satisfying meals I can imagine. Chewy al dente tortellini filled with little wedges of soft cheese are nestled next to a savory broth, richly flavored from the infusion of garlic, ripe tomatoes, and fresh Italian herbs. Finished with sprinklings of fresh parsley, gratings of a nice aged parmesan reggiano, and a hot out of the oven tear of crusty bread, and at this moment I cannot find room beside my adoration for this soup to think of a meal I love more.

Garden OreganoGarden sageGarden SageGarden oregano

At an influential time in my youth, it was Amy who first introduced me to such things as making homemade pasta, cooking with and growing my own fresh herbs, using lavender as a spice, and unique twists on traditional favorites such as sweet potato quesadillas and mango salsa.

It was Amy who sparked my interest in photography, it was Amy who made up crazy silly songs with my brother and me and then animated my stuffed bear to sing along, and it was Amy who was there when my father died at the end of that summer in college; it was Amy who was still there six months later, not afraid to stand in the shadow of death or look me in the eye, and hold me as I cried… And it is still Amy who is there. Thank you, friend.

Beautiful Amy Amy in field of flowers. Photo courtesy of Amy’s sister in law, Cara Lavarone.

Simple garlic broth with tortellini, tomatoes, and garden herbs
adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (Tomato garlic soup with tortellini)

8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
3 cups diced tomatoes or 5 medium fresh tomatoes (about 4 cups chopped)
12 ounces fresh cheese filled tortellini
3 tablespoons minced fresh garlic (1 large or 2 small heads)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 sprig fresh sage
1 sprig fresh thyme
several sprigs fresh parsley and more, chopped, for serving
sea or kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
freshly grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

In a covered pot, bring the stock to a boil. In a soup pot on low heat, gently saute the garlic in the olive oil until golden, taking care not to let it brown. Add the boiling stock. Stir in the paprika. Tie the sage, thyme, and parsley into a little bundle with string, and add the “bouquet” to the pot (you may also chop the herbs and add straight into the soup – this is what I do). Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, add tomatoes, and simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust for salt and pepper to taste.

In a separate pot, cook tortellini until al dente, usually 4-5 minutes (check package directions) for fresh tortellini. When ready to serve, place tortellini in individual bowls and ladle the soup over them. Serve topped with grated cheese and chopped parsley.

Note: You may omit the tomatoes and/or the tortellini and add other pasta, vegetables, greens, potatoes, peas, chicken – so many possibilities! Also, this easily serves 6-8 people, so I often freeze just some of the broth to pull out and cook with a new package of fresh tortellini for an easy and delicious last minute meal.

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Posted in Main Courses - Vegetarian | 16 Comments »

Favorite meatballs with spaghetti

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Favorite meatball sitting squat and beautiful by lkwm on dRc

I made these meatballs just for you. Really, I did. They are one of my go to comfort foods in the dead of winter, which we’ve been experiencing around here in Virginia this week, and I really wanted to share them with you.  I discovered this recipe rather haphazardly in a Williams-Sonoma magazine a few years ago, and I dare say these are the best meatballs I’ve eaten, whether by my own hand, or at a restaurant.  Now I can’t speak for the future, since I believe it is a terrible shame to ever close one’s mind to change and improvement – or in this case – new and future recipes, but what I can tell you is:  these meatballs are GOOD.

Garlic and parsley by lkwm on dRc

They may not be neat. Or pretty. They are not fancy, or uber-organic lowfat - though you could make them quite organic, if you chose. But they are good.

Beaten egg by lkwm on dRc

I make them for company. I make them for B. I make them for me. I just make them. Sometimes I get a meatball craving and nothing else will satisfy – not bolognese, not lasagna, not marina – just meatballs. And spaghetti.

Home made bread crumbs by lkwm on dRcBreadcrumbs in measure by lkwm on dRc

I like to make my own bread crumbs – so simple really, but not strictly necessary. If you decide to give it a whirl, all you have to do is grab some bread on hand, any bread, and give it a buzz in a food processor or mini chopper. But I started making these with regular plain store bought bread crumbs long before I picked up many of my current fancy tips and habits, and I have nothing but feelings of warm nostalgia towards those lovelies.

Chopped parsley by lkwm on dRc

I haven’t told you much about my little boy, J. He is wonderful – a love story that caught me off guard and delights me each day. He loves to watch mommy cook, and chop. He wishes he could hold the knife. We got him a play kitchen for Christmas, complete with adorable petite wooden pots and pans, but he still prefers our huge and heavy stainless steel. clang. Clang. CLANG. love.

Meatball ingredients in bowl by lkwm on dRcBreadcrumbs on board by lkwm on dRc

I did not eat meatballs as a child. My beloved mother, ever conscience of her family’s fat intake, was not likely to whip up weekday meals with any kind of ground beef pork mixture involved. And it was the 90s, when lowfat was the current low carb. But I am a bit less particular, as is she, these days. Now it’s about balance and moderation.

Placing cheese into meatball by lkwm on dRcSealing cheese into meatball by lkwm on dRcPerfect little meatball by lkwm on dRcMeatballs sitting pretty by lkwm on dRc

Did I mention that these are stuffed? Guess not. That’s because I only recently started doing this, even though the recipe has always called for it. I always thought, oh fuss – extra work. But once I tried it, it really is hardly any extra work at all, and it makes for quite an impressive meatball – if you decide to have company over, or just want to wow your sweetheart.

Meatballs browning in olive oil by lkwm on dRcSizzling meatballs by lkwm on dRc

There is something so soothing about a good spaghetti and meatballs. I hope you try these, and that they warm you and those you love from the inside out.

Favorite meatballs in sauce by lkwm on dRcMeatball up close by lkwm on dRcCheesy meatball by lkwm on dRc

Favorite meatballs with spaghetti
adapted from Williams-Sonoma
serves 10-12, may be reduced in increments of 1/3

1/3 cup milk
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (I have used both fresh and plain store bought bread crumbs successfully)
1 lb each ground pork, veal and beef (this is often labeled as “meatloaf mixture” at the store – I often use 2/3 beef, 1/3 pork)
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 3/4 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/3 lb. mozzarella, provolone, or fontina cheese cut into 1/2″ cubes (optional)
About 6 cups tomato sauce (I promise a post on a home made sauce recipe in the future, till then, I have tried and recommend this one, or use 2-3 jars of your favorite store brand)
2 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente and drained
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving

In a large bowl, combine milk and bread crumbs. Add meats, 1/3 cup parsley, eggs, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix briefly with hands. Form into 2″ balls. If using cheese, seal a cube into center of each ball. In a large skillet (biggest you have) set on medium high heat, heat 1/2″ (I use about 1/4″) oil until shimmering and almost smoking. Brown meatballs 1 minute per side (I end up doing about three turns) taking care not to crowd the meatballs in the pan. If you are making the full recipe, you will need either two pans or to do this in two rotations.  Transfer to paper towel-lined tray.

Discard oil in pan. Pour tomato sauce into pan; bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Add meatballs, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until cooked through, 25-30 minutes (recipe says 30, but often mine are done after 20 minutes and they are best not overcooked, so slip a knife into one early and check for doneness). Uncover; cook 10 minutes more (again, I sometimes cut this back to about 5 minutes once meatballs are cooked through). Serve over pasta with cheese and extra chopped parsley.

Note: Since this makes such a large amount, I often reduce the recipe by 2/3 which ends up yielding about 8 meatballs. Other times I reduce it by 1/3 or make the full amount and freeze a portion of the meatballs after they are fried in the oil, but before simmering in the sauce.  They cook and reheat beautifully right out of the freezer when placed in sauce and finished according to the recipe (increase cooking time and check for doneness).

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Posted in Main Courses - Meat | 18 Comments »

Farfalle pasta with Oven dried tomatoes

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Farfalle pasta with oven dried tomatoes by LKWM on dRc
I told you last week how I went gaga over these oven dried tomatoes, so I created a pasta to give them a stage to show off their stuff. But as it turns out, there are so many zippy flavors and satisfying textures here that it seems unfair to give accolades to any one character over another, but here’s my go at it: There are the tomatoes, yes, but also cubes of fresh mozzarella that get all soft and melty when tucked into the warm pasta, and I can’t forget the basil, olive oil, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts that create a type of deconstructed pesto sauce, picked up by the addition of balsamic vinegar and lemon zest. And the heart of palm…Do you know about this delicate artichoke-esque vegetable harvested from the core of certain palm trees? So wonderful.
Asparagus tips in light by lauraWM on dRc
What I love about pasta is that while you set water out to boil and let your farfalle bobble away in that pot of boiling water, you can use this 20 minutes or so to prepare a couple of ingredients, make a quick sauce – and by the time the pasta is a perfect al dente – Voila!  Dinner is complete.
Heart of palm by lkwm on dRcSliced tomatoes by lauraWm on dRCAsparagus with ends cut by lkwm on dRc
If you’ve ever wondered how much asparagus’ ends to cut off (the ends are quite tough), here’s a quick tip:  hold a stalk at the cut off end with one hand, and hold the middle of the stalk with the other hand, and bend to break. Where the stalk breaks is where it begins to be tender for eating. Use this length as a guide to quickly cut off all the rest of the stalks to the proper length.
Parboiling asparagus by lkwm on dRcDraining pasta and asparagus by lkwm on dRc
If you want to consolidate pots and prep time (who doesn’t?), parboil the asparagus with the pasta in the last couple of minutes of the pasta cooking time. Then simply drain the pasta and vegetable together at the same time. If you are not familiar with the term parboil, it simply means to partially cook, or quickly boil a veggie for 1-2 minutes, lightly cooking it while retaining crispness. Sometimes the veggie is then cooked further (as in a stir fry or risotto) or at other times parboiling is enough.  I like my veggies crisp, so in this dish, I think a quick parboil is just right. Classic parboiling calls for a rinse in cold water to retain color and completely stop the cooking, but I do not like to rinse my pasta, so in this case, I forgo this step for the asparagus in the name of convenience – but you may cook them separately, if desired.
Shitake mushrooms by lkwm on dRcSauteing shitakes with garlic by lkwm on dRcAdding parmesan to pasta by lkwm on dRc
This is a relatively simple dish, and though I adore the oven dried tomatoes here, I have to concede that if you are pressed for time, oil packed sun dried tomatoes would likely work as an acceptable substitute. It makes enough for 6-8 people, so it could easily serve as a beautiful all inclusive company meal.  Or, you might be like my husband and myself, and be happy to have leftovers that do not grow tiresome even on the third night and still taste fresh enough to serve to the unexpected guest – such as S., who showed up on leftover night #3, on a rather predictable spontaneous whim.

Perhaps many things remain seen, or tasted, through rose colored glasses when there are pregnancy hormones coursing through a woman’s veins, but my inspiration for this pasta came from two different dishes around the time of J.’s birth – the first at the baby shower S. threw for me, and the second brought to me directly postpartum. One had olives, peas, and sun dried tomatoes, and the latter – grilled chicken and more olive oil than I have used here – but both delicious, and both nourishing to more than just my physical body.
Oven dried tomatoes in light by LKWM on dRc
Farfalle pasta with oven dried tomatoes
Serves 6-8, may be halved
16 oz. farfalle pasta (I used whole wheat), cooked al dente, with 1/4 cup pasta water reserved
1 bunch of asparagus, (about 30 stalks), tough ends trimmed off (see post) and stalks cut into 2 inch pieces
5-6 oven dried tomatoes, using this recipe (you could substitute 1 jar oil packed sun dried tomatoes, drained)
1 14 oz can of heart of palm, drained and diced into third inch circles
1 large bunch of fresh basil (about 15-20 leaves) sliced into thin strips
3/4 cup + 1/2 cup fresh grated hard Italian cheese – parmesan, pecorino romano (if you use pre-grated cheese, start with 1/2 cup and add more to taste)
8 oz. fresh mozzarella or fontina cheese, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
4 cloves garlic minced, or finely chopped
1 – 1 1/2 cups rinsed and sliced shitake or baby portobello mushrooms
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/8 cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
.6 oz package pine nuts, toasted (2 – 3 minutes in toaster oven or skillet – they burn quickly so keep watch)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt (to taste)
zest from 1/2 lemon
several cracks of freshly ground black pepper
1. Prepare oven dried tomatoes beginning two and half hours before serving time.
2. Start boiling water for pasta according to package directions to cook pasta al dente.
3. While pasta water is heating and pasta is cooking, slice asparagus, heart of palm,  basil leaves, and mushrooms; mince garlic, zest lemon, grate hard cheese, cube soft cheese, and toast pine nuts.
4. When the pasta has two minutes left to cook, add asparagus to the boiling pasta and water (this is called parboiling, see post). After 1.5 to 2 minutes, drain pasta and asparagus together, reserving 1/4 cup of pasta water (I like to drain my pasta over a wide bowl and then use the “caught” water later, if needed). Drizzle and toss 1 tablespoon olive oil with the pasta and asparagus in the colander to keep moist and prevent the pasta from sticking together.
5. Heat olive oil in large pan till shimmering, add minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds (do not brown), add mushrooms and cook until just softened through- about two minutes, depending on size and thickness of mushrooms.
6. Add warm pasta with asparagus to the pan.  Add balsamic vinegar, 3/4 cup grated cheese, lemon zest, salt and pepper to taste, and toss to cover pasta.  If pasta needs more moisture, add pasta water 1 teaspoon at a time – or additional olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste.  Discard unused pasta water.
7. Add rest of ingredients, minus extra grated cheese and basil for topping – or arrange pasta in individual dishes and place remaining ingredients attractively on top.  Top each serving with a spoonful of the grated cheese and sliced basil. May also be served cold or at room temperature.
* If reheating leftovers, its nice to sprinkle the pasta with a few drops of water, bit of extra balsamic vinegar, and a dash of kosher or sea salt to bring it back to five star status.

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Posted in pasta | 9 Comments »

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