Penne with Butternut, Bacon, and Sage

Have you ever debated buying the $0.99/lb store-brand pasta versus the De Cecco brand that costs $4.35?  Is there any reason to buy the more expensive pasta?

Oh yes, there is.

The ingredient list on both brands may look nearly identical, but brands do taste different.  In the same way that different loaves of white bread can all be made of flour, yeast, and water, but small changes can make each loaf taste unique; white French bread does not taste like white Italian bread, even though the ingredients are similar.  Pasta makers may choose different wheat, the semolina may be ground coarse or fine, various drying temperatures and times may be used, and the cuts or ridges may be made in ways that help a sauce cling to the pasta. (De Cecco has a very interesting web page explaining this in more detail.)

Salt is also crucial. Have you ever put just a pinch of salt into a huge pot of boiling water for pasta? That’s not nearly enough. A properly salted pot of water should taste salty like the sea; you need around 1 tablespoon per gallon of water. Try this change the next time you make pasta and you’ll taste an improvement.

Once you’ve got a good brand of pasta and the proper salting and cooking technique, you may find yourself saucing your pasta the way the Italians do – with just enough sauce to coat – so that the pasta flavor really shines through in the finished dish.

This recipe is a great example of barely-sauced pasta, using golden chunks of butternut squash, a hit of smoky bacon, torn bits of fresh sage, a pinch of red chile for heat, and a handful of salty Parmesan, all accenting the pasta without overwhelming it. As a bonus, even with the bacon, this is a pretty light dish; there’s no huge amount of cream of cheese weighing it down.

So what’s in this elusive, transparent “sauce”?  The trick is to add a bit of the starchy pasta water to the pan before you add the cheese. As the water evaporates, the starch helps to bind the ingredients and flavors all together without being all that saucy or watery. Just ladle a cup of water out of the pasta pot just before you drain the pasta and set it aside.

This nifty little technique makes it easy to improvise pasta dishes out of any veggies, herbs, and knobs of cheese you’ve got knocking about your deli drawer, because you can always bring it all together with a ladle of pasta water.  There’s no need to skip spaghetti for dinner because you haven’t got tomato sauce.

Penne with Butternut, Bacon, and Sage

A hit of chile, a handful of sage, salty Parmesan, and a touch of bacon smoke come together in this simple pasta dish loaded with chunks of sweet butternut squash.  Use good pasta and salt the water well–the flavor will shine through in the final dish.

Adapted from Food and Wine, March 2003

Serves 4

for roasting squash:
1 small butternut squash (about 4 cups), peeled, 1/2″ dice
1 Tbs. olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

for pasta:
3/4 lb. penne rigate (penne pasta with ridges)
1/4 lb. bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2″ pieces
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
16 fresh sage leaves, torn into pieces
red pepper flakes, to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated or shredded

Heat oven to 425F. On a baking sheet lined with greased foil, toss together the butternut, oil, salt, and pepper.  Spread into one layer. Roast 15 min. or until tender.

Boil a large pot of salted water.  Use roughly 1 tbs. kosher salt per gallon of water.

Cook pasta until al dente or according to package directions. Ladle 1 cup of the pasta water into a heat-proof container (like a Pyrex measuring cup) and set aside.  Drain pasta and do not rinse.

While the pasta cooks, heat bacon in a high-sided skillet over medium heat until browned, 4-5 min. Add the shallots, sage, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Cook until shallots are soft, 2-3 min.

Add the roasted squash, cooked pasta, and reserved cooking water to the pan. Cook over medium-high heat, tossing gently, until the water has evaporated, 2-4 minutes. Add cheese and toss. Adjust salt, pepper, and chile flakes as needed.

Serve with additional cheese at the table if desired.





Frozen Cookie Dough: Chocolate-White-Chocolate Chunk

I’m feeling downright Scroogey for not making a load of Christmas cookies, but my pants are already tight and I can’t handle the extra calories right now.

But, jeez, I’ve got to bake something.

Problem is, I can’t be left alone with the standard recipe yield of 24-48 cookies.  I wind up eating fistfuls of cookies. Fistfuls. 

Luckily, there is a good compromise:  Frozen cookie dough. You can bake 2 cookies at a time instead of 24.

I’m not talking about that frozen commercial crap from the Home Shopping Network.  That junk is full of margarine, oil, artificial flavors, and waxy, bad chocolate. (I know the description says “butter-based”, but check the ingredient tab on that link.  Where’s the butter?) If I’m going to eat a sugar bomb, I want my sugar mixed with real butter and spectacular chocolate.

So I freeze homemade cookie dough.

Not all doughs freeze well. Trial and error seems the only way to tell, with some doughs turning oily and others working perfectly fine. (If anyone out there has a theory that will predict freezer success, please chime in!) The important thing is to freeze the dough into individual portions before you pack them away. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to scoop small amounts of rock-hard frozen dough without thawing the entire batch.

Your girlfriend/husband/whoever will adore you when you pull hot, homemade cookies out of the oven with on a cold winter night. Cookies for no particular reason! Ye shall get kisses.

Luckily, my all-time favorite dough, Ina Garten’s Chocolate, White Chocolate Chunk, freezes beautifully.

Alas, there is one tiny problem: Once the cookies cool completely after baking, the freezing does seem to affect the final “set” texture. They get a bit crispier than normal. Not bad, but not quite like the original.

Right out of the oven, they are perfectly moist, decadent, divine.

So you should eat them hot.

Oh, bummer!

Chocolate White-Chocolate Chunk Cookies – the frozen version
This recipe by Ina Garten makes an incredible cookie.  A grown-up, racy version of the standard chocolate chip. Use good cocoa and you’ll be rewarded with deep, dark flavor playing off the cocoa-butter richness of white chocolate.

adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties!
yields 36-40 cookies

for the dough:
1/2 lb. unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup white granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I recommend Valrhona)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1.5 lbs. white chocolate, cut into chunks (I often use chips instead)

for freezing:
small ice-cream scooper (I use a 1.75-inch diameter)
freezer-duty zip-top bags
a straw, optional

To make dough:

Use a stand mixer with paddle attachment.  Cream the butter and sugars on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla.  Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add the cocoa powder and mix well, on low speed.  (Low! Or cocoa goes everywhere.)

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. (Alternative: use a whisk to thoroughly mix/fluff the dry ingredients.)

With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the dry flour mixture.  Mix just until combined.

Use a sturdy spoon or spatula to fold in the white chocolate.

To freeze:

Use the small scoop to portion dough into balls. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment.

Place entire baking sheets in freezer and chill until dough is firm, 30-45 minutes. (If you can’t fit all the dough in your freezer at once, chill the big bowl of dough in the refrigerator and portion/freeze the dough balls in batches.)

Remove from freezer.  Pack dough balls into zip-top bags. Lay bag flat and pack in a single layer. Seal tightly, removing as much air as possible.

(Sealing tip: Zip the bag closed but leave a corner open. Insert a straw.  Suck the air out, pull the straw out while inhaling, and quickly close the zipper. It’s a makeshift vaccuum seal. Your dough balls will now stay in one neat layer.)

To bake:

Heat oven to 350F. Place frozen dough balls 2-inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake 13-15 minutes or until cookies are starting to set. Let cool on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes until the firm up a bit. Serve warm!


Spice-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I am all about easy side dishes. I love reading cookbooks and food blogs full of gorgeous gratins, slaws, and the like, but I never get around to making them. On a busy weeknight, if I’m going to eat my vegetables and not resort to snacking on gingersnaps right out of the box, I need side dish recipes that don’t involve ten dishes and ten minutes of chopping. I also need recipes that don’t use too much oil or add too many calories to my plate. (Or I might as well just eat those cookies.)

This brings me to sweet potatoes. They’re so good for you with their lower-than-white-potato glycemic index. They keep for weeks in the pantry. And they are so dang tasty.

You can cook them plainly, but what’s the fun in that? After several microwave-baked sweet potatoes with butter in a row, I’m ready for something more interesting. The usual Thanksgiving treatment (butter, sugar, more sugar) is too decadent to have every day.

These spice-roasted sweet potatoes are a staple in both my kitchens: work and home. They take five minutes to prep, require one baking sheet that you can line with foil to minimize mess, make use of spices you’re probably not tired of yet (when is the last time you used ground fennel?), and they are utterly, unexpectedly delicious.  I clipped this recipe from an old issue of Gourmet and have been making them for years.

The spice rub calls for hot pepper flakes.  If you don’t like spicy foods, the amount can be reduced, but I don’t recommend leaving them out altogether.   The hit of chile really makes this dish – just use a pinch if you’re worried.  The sweetness of the potato will counter the heat.

If you want to make these often, keep a little jar of the spice mix handy to save time.  You can make any quantity easily – just notice the 2:1 ratio of coriander to other spices.  This mix also makes a great rub for steaks or hamburgers.

Spice-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

These potatoes hit all the right notes – salty, spicy, and sweet. The original recipe called for twice the oil.  While oil can help crisp them up, I’m always looking for ways to cut calories and I am thrilled with this compromise.  

adapted from Gourmet, January 2002
Serves 4-6

1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground fennel
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
kosher salt, to taste
2 lb. sweet potatoes
1.5 tbs. olive oil

Heat oven to 425F.

Line a baking sheet with foil and grease lightly.

Mix spices in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Cut sweet potatoes into wedges or a large dice. (Leave skin on.) Place on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle with spice mix, olive oil, and salt.  Don’t skimp on the salt.  Toss to evenly coat and spread potatoes in one layer with space between the pieces.

Roast for 25-30 minutes or until tender.  Flip potatoes once during cooking.

Sun-dried Tomato and Oregano Butter

I ate too much for Thanksgiving and I need some detox.

Seriously.  We finished pies and then made more pies. We took it to a whole ‘nother level.

Now I’m looking for clean food like that grilled chicken.  But there is no need to leave that chicken naked, juicy as it may be.

I usually reserve compound butters for hot weather, since they provide a sauce with no long simmering on the stove and seem to just fit with a crisp glass of white wine, but after the Thanksgiving gluttony the simplicity and lightness are welcome.

If you’re going to make compound butter, you might as well make a bunch of it for the freezer. You can toss it on any grilled meat, slather it on hot pasta with veggies, on steamed vegetables, or even just rub it onto a loaf of good bread.

I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve had buttered La Brea sourdough from Costco for dinner.  I’m not embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve made an impromptu dinner for guests with herb butter, frozen spinach ravioli, and some steamed veggies.  The butter just gives everything a lift out of the ordinary.

By all means, don’t stop with these ingredients and don’t feel the need to run to the store.  If you haven’t got oregano, use basil.  If you haven’t got a lemon, use an orange.  If you don’t have a bottle of wine open, just omit it.

What am I saying?  Open a bottle.

Sun-dried Tomato and Oregano Butter
The acidity of tomato, lemon, and white wine cut the richness of the butter and keep it from feeling heavy on the tongue.  Once it melts, you have a lovely casual sauce for grilled chicken or fish.  Adapted from Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America.
Serves 5

4 tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbs. sun-dried tomatoes, minced (see note)
2 tbs. fresh oregano, minced
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. dry white wine
kosher salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
plastic wrap

Use a rubber spatula to blend soft butter with other ingredients.If all of the liquid doesn’t mix in well, don’t worry about it.  Just leave the excess in the bowl when you remove the butter.

Lay a long piece of plastic wrap flat on the counter.Use the spatula or your hands to lay the butter down in a roughly oblong shape.Roll the plastic around it. Grab both ends and twist tightly.The pressure will smooth out the butter and make a nice cylinder.

Chill in the refrigerator until firm. (Or pop in the freezer for a few minutes.) Remove plastic wrap and slice into pats for serving.

Melt pats onto hot meats, veggies, or pasta.

Keeps one week in the fridge or several weeks in the freezer.Wrap well, as the butter can absorb flavors from other foods.

Note:I use fairly soft sun-dried tomatoes that are packed dry in vacuum-sealed bags.Tomatoes packed in oil would work well too.If you have rock-hard tomatoes, plump them in hot water for a few minutes to soften.