Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Winter Pasta with Butternut Squash

For a while, my daughter Maria, back from a semester in Italy, has asked about fixing pasta (she wants homemade pasta now, of course) dressed with butternut squash. At the same time we’ve been using butternut, a truly delectable vegetable, in a variety of autumn and winter dishes at Donderos’ Kitchen, our family deli and catering service in Athens, Georgia. Finally, it has been a while, with a chaotic family schedule plus the holidays, since I did a blog entry. So here is the confluence of the three themes: a recipe for pasta with butternut.

Butternut squash is, to me, the best tasting of all the winter squashes and pumpkins. Botanically butternut is a cultivar (selection) of the species Concurbita moschata, one of the most ancient species in the Concurbita family of pumpkins and squashes from North and South America. I grew butternuts successfully when I was a kid, which fact has no relation to the ancientness of the plant’s origin. Butternut, when fully ripe, has a rich yellow-orange flesh, a fine grain, and a sweet nutty flavor. I use it not only for American cooking and curries but also as the substitute for the flat, ribbed Italian “zucca” pumpkin (“zucchini” is Italian for little – or young – pumpkin) and the similar southern French “potiron” pumpkin in pastas, soups, and gratins. Look for butternuts with no green tinges in the skin, feel heavy and hard, and have a very dry, hard stem. When you peel them, by the way, there is a sort of sap that sticks to your hands, but it washes off.

This colorful pasta celebrates winter in appearance and flavor. It serves as either a lunch dish on its own or as a pasta accompaniment for a meat or fish dish. The recipe serves six. A rich white wine, particularly a chardonnay or gewurtztraminer, goes well with this.

Pasta with Winter Vegetables Tim

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut in narrow strips
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 medium butternut squash
1 medium stalk broccoli
1 small onion
1 large clove of garlic
2 tablespoons flat parsley, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil for frying plus 2 extra tablespoons for dressing the pasta 1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
A pinch of sage, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
12 ounces (3/4 pound) short pasta, such as gemelli, bow ties, or penne
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan or Romano cheese plus extra for serving

Prepare the vegetables and keep each type separate: Cut the dried tomato into narrow strips if not already cut. Soak them in the wine. (Do not drain before using.) Peel squash, scoop out the seeds with a spoon, and cut the flesh into 1/2-inch cubes. Cut off all but 1 inch of the broccoli stem. Cut the broccoli top into 1/2-inch flowerets, each with a tiny piece of stem. Peel, halve, and slice the onion lengthwise 1/4-inch wide. Mince the garlic. Chop the parsley coarsely, discarding the stems.

Cook the “dressing” before boiling the pasta. Bring a very large pot of water to the boil. Add a teaspoon of salt and keep the water hot. 15-20 minutes before serving time, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan. Briefly fry the garlic until fragrant but not browning. Add the onion and stir and fry until limp. Add the cubed squash and stir and fry until just tender, adding a little water if sticking to the pan. Add the broccoli and several tablespoons water plus 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir and fry the vegetables until the broccoli turns dark green (about 50-60 seconds). Mix in the dried tomatoes and their soaking wine plus the oregano, pepper and sage, if used. Cook for a half minute, stirring very frequently. Taste a piece of vegetable and add salt if necessary. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley.

Bring the hot water back to a fast boil over high heat. Add the pasta and stir immediately with a long fork so the pasta does not stick. Stir frequently during cooking. Beginning after a few minutes (cooking time depends on the pasta used), remove a piece of pasta, cool it under running water and bite into it to test for tenderness. The pasta should be cooked just until it loses any crunch in the center. Drain it in a colander, shaking it well to remove the water. Do not rinse it with running water. Pour it into a large pasta bowl along with 2 tablespoons olive oil plus the cooked vegetables and the grated cheese. Using two large spoons, toss lightly to mix. Taste and if not salted enough, sprinkle on some salt and toss again. Serve with a little more cheese sprinkled on top plus extra to accompany.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

World's Easiest Cauliflower Gratin

Faced with partial heads of cauliflower left from several cooking classes (which had included au gratin and hot cauliflower-artichoke antipasto), after dinner a few Sundays ago I tried a simplified version of au gratin cauliflower using various odds and ends in the kitchen. Unfortunately it turned out so tasty I ate a third of the casserole dish, and that was after a full meal and a number of fresh chocolate chip cookies and white wine. This is not a dish for the faint of heart, or those trying to exercise restraint.

With crisp early winter weather setting in, seasonally right cauliflower transforms happily into a rich side dish or luncheon main dish. Cauliflower on its own is one of the blander members of the cabbage family (technically the mustard, or Brassica, family). But with a tangy cheese (I initially used an aged domestic provalone called "auricchio") and a little black pepper and nutmeg the fullness that really is in cauliflower emerges. Other cheeses that would serve well are Gruyère, asiago (use only part, since it is so strong), or aged sharp cheddar. All of these cheeses can be expensive, so you can get away with half that and half a cheaper milder cheese such as "Swiss" or jack.

Normally gratin dishes are complex to make, with numerous steps. The method here avoids making a bechamel sauce. I think that this is about as easy as a gratin gets. And it's worth it.

The dish goes amazingly well with a hearty chardonnay or a medium-bodied dry, spicy red like a Côtes-du-Rhône, Spanish garnacha or a Chianti. Warm crusty baguette or Italian bread is a great accompaniment, and if the gratin is the main dish, an uncomplicated salad of field greens and some tomato would be ideal.

Simplified Cauliflower Gratin (Gratin de Chou-fleur) Tim

(Recipe serves six as a side dish or four for lunch)

1 small-medium head of cauliflower
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1-1/2 cups (loosely packed) grated tangy cheese (Gruyère, Jarlsberg, extra sharp cheddar, or asiago mixed with milder cheese)
2 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
Large pinch each of salt and pepper

Set oven for 375 degrees. Separate cauliflower flowerets and place them in a steamer. Sprinkle them lightly with salt and steam for 5 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop their cooking. In a bowl, combine milk, mayonnaise, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cauliflower and toss to mix. Transfer mixture into a shallow attractive casserole dish big enough so you have a 1 to 1-1/2 inch layer. Mix breadcrumbs with olive oil, salt and pepper to moisten, and sprinkle it over the cauliflower. Bake, uncovered, until turning golden on top and bubbling gently along the edges, 25-30 minutes. Serve hot in the casserole dish.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Soup for St. Bart’s: Turkey-Apple Chowder with Cheddar and Ale

My wife, Christina, has staff meetings mid-day Mondays at St. Bartholomew’s church, where she is a deacon. Having brought in a hot snack for the group several weeks ago (the green chile I was developing then – see the November 20th blog posting), she was encouraged to consider them guinea pigs anytime. So another hearty experimental soup headed their way today, a cold blustery early winter day in Atlanta.

With the chill weather and the popularity of the home-made soups at our deli in Athens, Donderos’ Kitchen, I have been creating a number of such concoctions recently. With the opportunity to try the dish on the clergy at St. Bart’s, I was influenced by their Episcopalian tradition to incorporate some Englishness: thus the apples, cheddar, and ale. I can’t say I have had anything quite like this before, but I was pleased with the outcome.

The key thing in making this “chowder” is a food processor. Finely dicing all the vegetables would otherwise be tedious, although it would work to produce a well-textured soup, anyway. The diced apples would soften to a puree in the cooking and the potatoes would thicken the soup as they become tender and begin to break down. The recipe calls for half a bottle of ale or beer. You can figure out what to do with the remainder. The recipe makes a lot of soup, but it serves well as a leftover. Have the soup for a hearty lunch sprinkled with a little extra minced parsley and accompanied by warm crusty bread.

Turkey-Apple Chowder with Cheddar and Ale Tim

2 medium-large onions
2 pounds ground turkey
1 large carrot, not peeled
1-1/2 large stalks celery
3 large apples
2 quarts water or vegetable broth (unsalted)
2 large bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dry savory
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 very large or 2 medium-large baking type potatoes (over 1 pound)
3 teaspoons salt plus more to taste
1/2 (12-ounce) bottle ale or lager beer
1-1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley, plus extra, minced, for garnish

Peel and quarter the onions. Chop them finely in a food processor (do not wash processor afterwards). Combine onion and ground turkey in a large heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot. Fry together over medium heat without added oil (unless very lean turkey was used), breaking the mixture up, until the juices come out and dry down. Meanwhile cut unpeeled carrot and the celery into chunks and chop them very finely in the food processor. Add to the turkey mixture and cook in, stirring frequently until some oil starts to emerge and the bottom of the pan begins to brown lightly (10-12 minutes). Peel, quarter, and core the apples and chop them very finely in the food processor. Add them to the frying mixture when it is ready and stir and fry another minute or two. Add 2 quarts water or unseasoned broth plus the herbs and spices (but not the salt) and bring to a boil, then simmer a few minutes. Peel potato, chunk it then puree it in the food processor with 1/2 cup water. Add this mixture to the soup and simmer 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The soup will thicken. Add the salt and simmer a little more. Dilute with some water if too thick. Add the ale or lager, and the grated cheese. Simmer 5-10 minutes, stirring often. Taste the soup and add salt as needed (the meat and vegetable bits will soak up the salt for a while). Turn off the heat and let sit 10 minutes.

Taste a final time and add salt if needed. Stir in the chopped parsley. The soup is best if made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated to serve (check the seasoning). Serve dusted with a little more parsley, minced.