Pasta Carbonara — Easiest Weeknight Dinner

pasta carbonara

I know what you’re thinking. Pasta carbonara? The week after Thanksgiving? Who needs it? But, and forgive me if I’m wrong, I think you might be thinking of an entirely different dish, one containing cream and butter and vast amounts of cheese?

I had misconceptions, too. But true pasta carbonara is in fact light, containing no cream at all. And this recipe, from Everyday Food, calls for sautéed leeks, grated lemon zest and freshly squeezed lemon juice, flavors that make this carbonara preparation particularly fresh and light. What I love most about this dish is the sauce, made with two whisked eggs, 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, and 1/4 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, an incredibly creamy mixture (despite containing no cream at all) that coats the pasta so well, making every bite especially tasty. Oddly, it tastes not the least bit eggy. Just creamy and delicious. Yum.

With bacon and eggs on hand, dinner can be assembled in a flash. I’ve made this dish once a week since my Everyday Food magazine arrived in mid-October. Nothing makes me happier than whisking that pasta cooking liquid with the eggs and cheese, watching it transform into a magically flavorful sauce, and throwing dinner on the table. I think you’ll enjoy it, too.

pasta carbonara

bacon, lemon & leeks

When my dear auntie was visiting last week, she brought me some goodies — eggs, bacon, sausage and chicken — from Kinderhook Farm in New York. Oh my gosh, what a treat! With the chicken — one of the best chickens I’ve ever tasted — we made Zuni Cafe’s roast chicken and bread salad; with the eggs and bacon, we made several batches of pasta carbonara (in addition to enjoying them on their own for breakfast); and with the sausage — so peppery and delicious — we made breakfast sandwiches on English muffins. Yum yum yum. Thank you Auntie!

eggs from Kinderhook Farm

Pasta Carbonara

Source: Everyday Food

Coarse salt and ground pepper
6 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
4 leeks (white and light-green parts only), halved lengthwise, rinsed well, and thinly sliced
3/4 pound short pasta, such as campanelle or orecchiette (I used gemelli and more like 1/2 lb.)
2 large eggs
1/2 ounce Parmesan, grated (1/4 cup), plus more for serving (optional)
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, coarsely chopped (optional)

1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from skillet. (I did not pour off any fat… it looked too good to discard.) Add leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until leeks are golden brown, about 10 minutes.

2. Add pasta to pot and cook according to package instructions. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking liquid. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, Parmesan, and lemon zest and juice. Whisk 1/4 cup pasta water into egg mixture.

3. Drain pasta and immediately add to egg mixture, along with bacon, leeks, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Sprinkle with more cheese if desired and serve immediately.

Beautiful eggs from Kinderhook Farm:
eggs from Kinderhook farm

Roast Chicken + Bread Salad, Zuni Cafe Style

Zuni Cafe's Roast Chicken with Bread Salad

Roasting a whole chicken used to feel like an ordeal to meal. It certainly was a process, one never attempted mid-week. After poking a lemon with a skewer 25 times, smashing garlic cloves, chopping up carrots and shallots, stuffing the cavity and pinning the neck closed, I would swaddle the dear bird with twine, a poor attempt at trussing. Geez Louise — just thinking about all of the steps makes me question why I ever attempted whole roasted chicken at all.

If you, too, reserve roasting a whole chicken for special occasions only, please know that a super moist, most delicious chicken can be achieved in 45 minutes. It’s true. Best of all, it requires no trussing.

Many of you already know about the much adored Zuni Cafe roast chicken and bread salad recipe. Some of you may have even had the luxury of enjoying it at the beloved San Francisco cafe. From oysters to wood-fired baked bread to ricotta gnocchi to chocolate gâteau and biscotti, the Zuni dinner my husband and I enjoyed there with two dear friends rates as one of the best ever.

And the roast chicken and bread salad for us (and many others) remains the most memorable course. The dish is a sort of roast chicken panzanella, a combination of spicy mustard greens, sweet currants, toasted pine nuts, and chewy peasant-style bread. And the bread. Oh the bread! Saturated with pan drippings and a light vinaigrette, these irresistible cubes are the star of the dish. Seriously, I could eat the whole batch of bread salad alone. The Zuni cookbook, one of my favorites for its stories and thoughtfully written recipes, offers detailed instructions on choosing a chicken, on salting the chicken (what they refer to as the “practice of salting early”), and on assembling this whole dish. (If you’re looking for a food-related gift, this book is prefect for any foodie — it’s filled with goodies.)

Anyway, while I rarely make the bread salad recipe — it indeed is a bit of a process — I make the roast chicken at least once a week. I can never find birds under 4 lbs. (Zuni recommends using a 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lb bird) but even so, with a hot cast iron skillet and the oven at 475ºF, my chickens finish cooking in 45 minutes consistently. And they are the juiciest, most flavorful chickens ever to emerge from my oven — the dark meat, my favorite, nearly falls off the bone, and the white white, infused with the flavors of sage and thyme (or whatever herb you’ve tucked under the skin) remains tender and juicy. It’s hard to refrain from gnawing on the bones while carving.

This time of year, nothing tastes better to me than a whole roasted chicken. A whole roasted chicken smothering a bread salad that is. While there’s nothing tricky about the bread salad recipe, somehow it always becomes more of a process than I anticipate. Perhaps it’s the way the recipe has been written — I always find my eyes glued to the book, rereading every paragraph to make sure I’m not missing a step. The recipe does not lack details that’s for sure, but it pays. When you’re feeling up for it, take a stab at this recipe. You won’t be disappointed.

roast chicken in cast iron skillet

mise en place

Mustard greens from our Olin-Fox Farms CSA:
mustard greens from Olin-Fox Farms CSA

bread for bread salad

scallions and garlic

bread with pine nuts, currants, scallions and garlic

Note: If you are making the bread salad recipe as well, read that recipe before starting the chicken. If you only have one oven, you might want to start on the bread salad recipe first — the bread needs to be briefly broiled.

Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Serves 2 to 4

One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2-pounds (I can only find chickens over 4 lbs., but I always dig for the smallest bird on the shelf)
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper
A little water

The Zuni recipe calls for seasoning the chicken one to three days before serving. I never am this organized and find the cooking method to work just as well when the chicken is seasoned just before cooking. If, however, you want to stick to the Zuni method, use about 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

If you choose to season the chicken just before roasting, start here:

1. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

2. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (I use a cast iron skillet). Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

3. Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Note: Every oven is different, but I have found consistent results with cooking the chicken breast side up for 30 minutes and breast side down for 15 minutes. My chickens (all about 4 lbs.) are almost always finished cooking after 45 minutes total — in other words, I skip the final 5 to 10 minute recrisping of the chicken breast side up.

If you are making the bread salad, continue to recipe below.

If you’re not making the bread salad:

4. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop) and leave to rest while you finish preparing your dinner (or the bread salad (recipe below)). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two. Cut the chicken into pieces; arrange on the warm platter. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste — the juices will be extremely flavorful.

At this point, drizzle the chicken with some pan drippings if you wish (taste the drippings first — they tend to be very salty, which is perfect for the bread salad, but maybe too much for the chicken alone) or add to bread salad (see recipe below).

Zuni Cafe Bread Salad
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Generous 8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar (I use white balsamic — love it)
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or any vinegar, I used white balsamic again)
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or more)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried

1. Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the crusts from your bread. Cut into a couple of large chunks. Arrange on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Broil very briefly, to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.

2. Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

3. Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and water. Set aside. Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, checking frequently and stirring every so often to make sure the nuts do not burn. Remove skillet from heat when nuts are golden.

4. Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.

Taste a few pieces of bread — a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.

Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart shallow baking dish and tent with foil. Set the salad bowl aside to be used again later. Place the bread salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes. (Note: I skip this step. I prefer the texture of the bread at room temperature. When I heat it, I find it loses some of its crisp texture.)

5. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop) and leave to rest while you finish preparing the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

6. Tip the bread salad back into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again. Arrange bread salad on a platter. Top with carved chicken.

prepped chicken

carved chicken

Butternut Squash and Crispy Sage Pizza, Five-Minutes-a-Day Style

butternut squash pizza with crispy sage

I have a pizza dough recipe I adore. I swore in fact I would never attempt another recipe. But then I saw this. Yes, the Hertzberg-Francois team has released another book: Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day. I couldn’t resist. Oh wow, where to begin, where to begin?

Perhaps with Tuesday, when I made the book’s goat cheese and onion pizettes – so delicious! — a Balthazar recipe made with APin5 dough? Or with Wednesday’s pre-dinner snack, a bubbling flatbread topped with pear, gorgonzola, and arugula, a classic combination made even more delectable by a record-short prep time?

No, no. I need to begin with the above-pictured creation, a Chez Panisse Vegetables recipe made with five-minutes-a-day dough. Garlic oil, homemade ricotta, roasted butternut squash, fresh thyme and crispy sage, this pizza captures fall in every bite. Sure, preparing the toppings will take more than five minutes, but with homemade dough on hand, this recipe becomes nearly effortless.

Let’s just say it’s been a strong week in the kitchen thanks to this little genius of a recipe. I have much more to report about the book and the dough and the various recipes beyond flatbread and pizza — breadsticks and dips and bread bowls to name a few — but I’ll have to check back next week on those. I just wanted to give you all a head’s up: if you think you might enjoy making homemade pizza in a moment’s notice, this book is for you. It’s available for pre-order now.

Also, for more inspiration, advice and recipes, check out the Pizza in Five website.

butternut squash pizza with crispy sage

Butternut Squash from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
butternut squash, sage, and Parmigiano Reggiano

butternut squash, unbaked and baked

butternut squash pizza, unbaked and baked

Artisan Pizza in Five Minutes a Day, Master Recipe
Source: Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day

Make the Dough

3 1/2 cups Lukewarm water
1 tablespoon yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
7 1/2 cups (2 lbs. 6 oz.) unbleached all purpose flour

1. Add yeast to the water in a 5-qt bowl or, preferably, in a lidded (not airtight) plastic food container or storage bucket. Don’t worry about getting the yeast to dissolve completely. Add the flour and salt and mix with a wooden spoon (or food processor or stand mixer) until incorporated.(Note: Recipe in book calls for adding salt and yeast to the water together, but I always get nervous adding salt to yeast. If you don’t share this fear, just mix the water, yeast and salt together in the same step.) You might need to use wet hands to get the last bit of flour to incorporate (I did not) if you’re not using a machine. Do not knead; it isn’t necessary. You’re finished when everything is uniformly moistened without dry patches. This step is done in a matter of minutes and yields dough that is loose enough to conform to its container.

2. Cover vessel with a non-airtight lid and allow dough to rise at room temperature until it begins to flatten on the top, about two hours, depending on the temperature of the room and the initial temperature of the water. Do not punch down the dough!

3. Refrigerate the dough overnight or for at least 3 hours. Once it’s refrigerated, the dough will collapse, and it will never rise again in the bucket — that’s normal for this dough. Store the dough in the refrigerator and use over the next 14 days.

On Baking Day

1. Prepare toppings in advance. See recipes below.

2. Thirty minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat a baking stone at your oven’s highest temperature, placed in the bottom third of the oven. Note: I do not own a pizza stone and have discovered great results by simply baking the pizza on a parchment lined jelly roll pan. Do not use an insulated baking sheet — this will not yield as crispy a crust as traditional baking pan.

3. If you are using a baking stone, prepare a pizza peel with flour, cornmeal or parchment paper to prevent sticking. Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1/2-pound (orange-size) piece of dough, using a serrated knife or kitchen shears. Hold the piece of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it wont stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the dough a quarter turn as you go to form a ball. Most of the dusting flour will fall off; it’s not intended to be incorporated onto the dough. The bottom of the dough may appear to be a collection of bunched ends, but it will flatten out and adhere once you roll it into a pizza or flatbread. The entire process should take no longer than 20 to 30 seconds.

4. Flatten the dough with your hands and a rolling pin on a work surface or directly onto the pizza peel (if using) to produce a 1/8-inch-thick round, dusting with flour to keep the dough from adhering to your work surface. The dough round should be about 12-inches across. Use a dough scraper to transfer the round to pizza peel or to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

5. Add your toppings (see recipe below if you wish.)

6. Slide pizza onto baking stone or place sheet pan in oven. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, turning half way if one side is browning faster than the other. Bake for as long as five minutes more if necessary.

Butternut Squash Pizza with Crispy Sage
Inspired by a recipe in Chez Panisse Vegetables
Yield = one 12-inch pizza

1 small butternut squash (about a pound, but you will likely have leftover squash)
olive oil
kosher salt
2 cloves garlic
fresh ricotta cheese
a few sprigs thyme, leaves removed
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
10-15 sage leaves
canola oil for frying

Notes: Original recipe called for mozzarella and Gruyère cheeses as well as parsley and fresh squeezed lemon as final seasonings.

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Remove the skin: Slice the top of the squash about 1/2-inch under the stem to create a flat edge. Repeat with the other end. Cut crosswise through the squash just above the bulb — cutting the squash into two pieces makes the peeling process easier. Note: I made only one pizza, so I only peeled the longer portion (the non bulb portion) of the butternut squash. Stand the squash (whichever piece you want to peel first) upright and, being careful not to slice off your fingers, run your knife down the sides of the squash removing the peel along the way. Repeat with bulb portion if desired. After peeling the bulb portion, cut it in half, scoop out seeds and discard. Cut the peeled squash crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices. I used a mandoline, which saves time and creates uniform pieces, but using a knife works just fine, too.

2. Place the slices of squash on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with kosher salt to taste, toss to coat, redistribute onto sheet in one layer and place in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until fork tender.

3. Meanwhile, peel and finely chop the garlic and add it to about 1/4 cup of olive oil. After rolling out a pizza round and placing it on a prepared baking sheet (see recipe above), brush dough with the garlic olive oil. (I spooned some of the oil into the center of the dough and then, using the back of my spoon, spread it over the dough to coat evenly.) Spread a thin layer of fresh ricotta over the garlic oil. Sprinkle with fresh thyme to taste. Top with baked squash slices. Top with grated Parmigiano. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, fry the sage. The book recipe does not give detailed instructions for this step, and after a few burnt batches of leaves, I turned to the internet for some advice. The sage leaves should take no longer than 5 seconds in hot oil to crisp up. I didn’t use a thermometer or a deep fryer, so it was a trial and error process, but I found that frying the leaves one at a time in a small sauté pan filled with a layer of canola oil worked well ultimately. I had to take the pan off the heat every so often, but once I got the hang of it, it was a simple process and well worth the effort — the crispy sage adds a really nice flavor.

5. Remove the pizza from the oven and top with the crispy sage. Yum!

Eggplant Involtini

cooked involtini

On the fussiness scale, this recipe is up there. I hate to start on such a negative note, especially when these little ricotta-stuffed rolls turned out to be so stinking good, but I’ve become really lazy in the kitchen. When I see recipes that call for salting and draining and blotting dry, or for deep frying, or for assembling little parcels — as adorable as they may be — I tend to shy away.

But I’ve had this recipe bookmarked since last Christmas when I first opened Tartine Bread. And with eggplant season peaking and with my homemade tomato sauce and ricotta cheese obsession persisting, the timing seemed right. And right it was. Oh boy. Somehow the flavors of lemon and thyme in the ricotta cheese pervade the eggplant shells, all of which meld together with the fresh tomato and cream sauce base, a perfect combination in this early fall dish.

Seriously, please don’t let the opening of this post deter you from this recipe. Try to remember that I’m lazy, you’re not. I have to admit, too, that the dish came together much faster than I had anticipated. And while I begrudgingly trudged through each step of the recipe, I ultimately found myself enjoying the stuffing and the rolling and the assembling of the eggplant packages. I know you will, too.

Oh, one last thought. Are you thinking about baking this weekend? Perhaps with plums? If so, I recommend you take a look at these posts, one from The Garden of Eden and the other from House to Haus. I made the zwetschgentorte today actually — delicious! — and I can’t stop thinking about Darcy’s Plum crumble. Hoping to get around to it this weekend as well. Yum yum yum yum yum.

cooked involtini

lemon & thyme

fried eggplant

assembled involtini in dishes

involtini, rolled

Involtini

Adapted from Tartine Bread
Serves 2

Notes:
• I made a half recipe.
• The book offers a recipe for tomato sauce, which I’m sure is delicious, but I have been hooked on this one since discovering it.
• I used these fabulous mini gratin dishes, but feel free to use a standard sized baking dish.

Involtini

1 eggplant
kosher salt
olive oil for frying (I used canola oil)
tomato sauce, this is the one I adore, but feel free to use your favorite store-bought
heavy cream
freshly grated Asiago cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano (I used parm)

Stuffing

bread crumbs, about 1/2 cup, made from about 3 slices day-old bread*
1 cup whole milk ricotta, homemade is easy and delicious
grated zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, minced
1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1. Trim the stem end of each eggplant. Using a mandoline, cut the eggplant lenthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices. You should have about 12 slices. Sprinkle the eggplant on both sides with kosher salt, layer them in a colander, and let stand for 1 hour. (I was impatient and only let them drain for about a half hour… worked out just fine.) Press the moisture from the eggplant and blot them dry with paper towels. Pour olive (or canola) oil to a depth of 1 inch in a deep, heavy saucepan or large skillet (I used a cast iron pan) and heat to 360ºF on a deep-frying thermometer. (I did not use a thermometer — just watched the oil and tested when I thought it was ready.) Place 3 to 4 eggplant slices in the hot oil and cook until the slices take on some color, 3 to 4 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the slices to a colander (or paper-towel lined plate) to drain. Repeat with remaining slices.

2. Meanwhile, make the stuffing. In a bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, ricotta, lemon zest, juice, thyme and salt.

3. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Spoon tomato sauce into a medium-sized baking dish (or individual gratin dishes) till bottom of dish is covered in a thin layer. Place a spoonful of filling at one end of each of the eggplant slices. Roll the slice around the filling and place it seam-side down in the dish on top of the tomato sauce. Spoon a tablespoon of cream (or less) over each roll to moisten. Bake until the edges of sauce around the sides of the dish are dark and the rolls are nicely caramelized, 20 to 25 minutes. Garnish with the Asiago (or parm) before serving.

* After burning a batch of homemade bread crumbs, I decided to go with Panko. If you want to make homemade, do something like this:

Homemade Bread Crumbs

3 slices day-old bread*, each 1-inch thick, torn into 1 1/2-inch chunks
2 T. olive oil
kosher salt
1/2 tsp. herbes de provence** (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. In a bowl, toss the torn bread with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Add the herbes if using. Spread the bread evenly on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Midway through baking, redistribute the croutons if they are coloring unevenly. Once cooled, place croutons in a ziplock bag and using a rolling pin or your hands, crumble them more finely.

involtini, one down

Bacon, Cheddar and Pear Panini

bacon, cheddar and pear panini

I do not know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s just one of those things, like pancakes and French toast, that burns on the outside for me before it’s done on the inside. A little over a year ago, I found a solution to my French toast woes, but I’m still searching for the equivalent recipe for pancakes: Can you bake pancakes? That would be amazing.

In any case, I do know how to make a panini, which is to say that I know how to take out my Krups panini machine, plug it in, and let it do its magic on whatever assembled sandwich I place between its irons.

I love my panini machine. Its genius. Within minutes of getting to work, it perfectly brands both slices of bread with nice grill marks, thoroughly heating everything else in between while allowing just a touch of cheese to ooze out its side (for presentation purposes obviously… such a thoughtful gadget.) If you can afford the kitchen real estate for a rather large uni-purpose tool, I highly recommend adding one of these presses to your arsenal of equipment. And while I’ve never tried one of these cast iron models, I imagine they might be quite good? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Anywho, I mentioned this sandwich last week while posting about thyme-roasted grapes — so delicious. Both recipes appeared in this month’s Real Simple magazine, and both are fantastic, though I must note there is nothing novel about the combination here. A double pairing of sweet and salty — jam and bacon, cheddar and pear — makes every bite worth savoring. I find the combination irresistible and even served these at a little dinner party. Casual is the new cool, right? It was fun, and at the very least, a lovely way to welcome fall.

bacon, cheddar and pear panini

panini ingredients

Mmmmmm… bacon. I don’t know how you cook bacon, but I like to place mine on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast it at 400ºF for about 20 minutes. It cooks evenly and isn’t as messy as stove-top cooking.
cooked bacon

bacon, cheddar and pear panini

Bacon, Cheddar and Pear Panini
Adapted from Real Simple September 2011
Serves 1, (obviously, this recipe can be multiplied as necessary)

Note: For the original recipe, follow this link.

1 tablespoon jam, such as currant or fig or Ikea’s lingonberry (what I used)
2 slices of nice, bakery-style bread, from a multigrain or Italian boule for example
2 slices Cheddar
2 slices cooked bacon
1/4 small pear, thinly sliced

1. Heat a panini machine. (Note: If you want to make a grilled cheese, follow the directions on the RS website — link is above.) Spread the jam on 1 slice of the bread. Layer the pear, bacon and cheddar on top.

2. Press the sandwich in the panini machine until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted, 3 to 5 minutes total depending on your machine.

bacon, pear and cheddar panini

Chez Panisse Eggplant, Caramelized Onion and Tomato Pasta

Gemelli with Eggplant, Tomato and Caramelized Onions

I don’t know about you, but I’m up to my eyeballs in eggplants here. My CSA delivery last week could have fed a small village, and I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in a good way though. I mean, I’ve been eating my way though a very delicious eggplant chapter in Chez Panisse Vegetables, so far delighting in eggplant gratin with tomato and onion, and roasted eggplant and tomato pizza. I know, it’s been rough.

But this pasta. Oooooh, this pasta. This pasta recipe unexpectedly has eclipsed its chapter companions, its deliciousness attributed to perfectly ripe eggplant, the freshest tomato sauce, sweet basil, caramelized onions, and above all to a most unsuspecting ingredient: sherry vinegar. I don’t know how just a splash of anything could so transform a dish, giving it a depth of flavor that subtly persists through layers of tomatoes and eggplant and onions, but somehow the sherry vinegar has.

There’s something, too, about the way the roasted eggplant melds with the caramelized onions and the tomato sauce that makes cheese totally unnecessary. No cheese on pasta, you ask? Hogwash, you shout!  I mean it. This roasted eggplant tomato sauce spiced with crushed red pepper flakes and freshened with basil was enough for me. I even had some homemade ricotta in the fridge. I even had a bowl of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano sitting inches from my plate throughout dinner. I had no trouble refraining.

While I know a bowl of hot pasta perhaps isn’t crossing your mind very often in late summer, eggplants are reaching their peak right about now, and they are oh so good. Give this recipe a go. It’s a keeper for sure.

Finally, if you like  summer pastas, you might like this dish, too.

Chez Panisse Vegetables Cookbook

Eggplant from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
eggplant from our CSA

eggplant, uncooked and cooked

Making the Sauce

Eggplant, Tomato and Caramelized Onion Sauce

Gemelli with Eggpplant and Tomato

Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables
Serves 4 to 6 (or 2 generously…see my notes for a smaller yield)

2 large globe eggplants (I used 1 eggplant, which yielded about 3 cups of diced eggplant weighing about 9.5oz)
olive oil
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 cups sliced)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 handful basil leaves
1 handful parsley leaves (I used only basil)
kosher salt
1 lb. penne (I used 1 cup of Gemelli pasta but use whatever you like)
sherry vinegar
2 cups tomato sauce (I used 1 cup of this sauce)
red pepper flakes
1/2 lb. ricotta salata cheese (I used no cheese, but served grated Parmigiano Reggiano on the side.)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut the eggplants into cubes about 3/4-inch square, toss them lightly with olive oil and spread them out in a single layer on a sheet pan. (Note: I’ve made this twice now, and my instinct the first time was to toss the eggplant with some kosher salt before roasting. The instructions don’t call for this, and second time around, I used no salt, and I think the eggplant came out better.) Roast in the oven for 25 minutes or so, until the eggplant is brown and tender.

2. Put a large (or small) pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add a large pinch of kosher salt. Cook the pasta al dente.

3. Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan with the olive oil and onions over medium heat. Sauté the onions until just caramelized. (Note: I started the onions when I put the eggplant in the oven — I find that caramelizing onions slowly over medium heat works best. I also added a pinch of kosher salt while sautéeing. The onions probably sautéed for 25 minutes to 30 minutes total.) Add the garlic and cook for a moment more, and then deglaze with a splash of sherry vinegar. Add the eggplant, tomato sauce, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Heat the sauce to simmering. Drain the pasta, add it to the tomato sauce pan, and toss gently. Chiffonade the basil and add it the pan.

4. Serve the pasta with a generous garnish of the chopped parsley (I omitted) and ricotta crumbled over the top (I also omitted, but served Parmigiano Reggiano on the side.)

Gemelli with Eggplant, Tomato and Caramelized Onions

Pizza Margherita, Homemade Tomato Sauce, Homemade Ricotta

classic pizza margherita

Oh my gosh, I have so much deliciousness to report to you all, I don’t know where to begin. I suppose it all started last week after Food 52 reminded me of Marcella Hazan’s widely adored tomato sauce recipe and the NY Times reminded me of the pleasure of eating fresh ricotta cheese, a delicacy (a nonentity, really) in my neck of the woods. And then I remembered seeing a Barefoot Contessa recipe for homemade ricotta cheese on Gwyenth Paltrow’s blog, which reminded me of a different GP entry about homemade pizza, all of which has led me to so many wonderful discoveries this week. Is your head spinning?

Let me summarize:

1. Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is every bit as delicious as everyone has claimed. I’ve never had success making tomato sauce. Never. I had accepted that jarred sauce tasted better than anything I could produce at home. That is until this past Tuesday, when I dipped my wooden spoon into my pot of gently simmering tomatoes, lifted it to my mouth, and tasted the freshest, lightest, most delectable flavors. And I have been smiling ever since. For all of you food bloggers, I know this is nothing revelatory. But friends, family, and any of you out there who have tomato sauce making fears, rest assured that you, too, can cook like an Italian grandmother. This sauce is gold.

2. Thanks to discovery #1, I’ve finally made a classic pizza margherita at home. One of my all-time favorite spots for thin-crust pizza is 2Amys in Washington D.C., which serves an incredible pizza margherita topped with a most memorable fresh tomato sauce. 2Amys Pizza was my first thought after tasting Hazan’s sauce. Now, I’ve accepted that until I build my wood burning oven, I’m not going to achieve a restaurant quality crust at home. But I no longer have an excuse for not making pizza margherita. This sauce is so damn good. I credit nothing other than the sauce for producing the pizza that emerged from my oven today. It was one of the best. Less is more is the key here: a thin layer of this sauce topped sparingly with fresh mozzarella cheese and a sprinkling of fresh basil out of the oven does the job. Yum yum yum.

3. Making fresh ricotta cheese at home is as easy as the Barefoot Contessa’s latest book promises. And it is SO delicious. I made myself nectarine and fresh ricotta bruschetta for lunch today. It was heaven. And then I remembered one of my all-time favorite pizza combinations — nectarine with basil and reduced balsamic — and made a variation of that for dinner. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to spread what’s left of my fresh ricotta on a toasted bagel and top it with one of my CSA tomatoes. I’m really living it up here.

The most fragrant purple basil freshly picked from my garden, a treat I have my brother-in-law to thank. Thanks Mr. T!
tomatoes and basil

Making tomato sauce:
making homemade tomato sauce

Straining homemade ricotta through cheesecloth:
homemade ricotta

Homemade tomato sauce and fresh ricotta cheese:
homemade ricotta and tomato sauce

Sauce approved by a silent and contemplative kitchen assistant:
Ella eats pasta

unbaked margherita pizza

Classic pizza margherita:
classic pizza margherita

classic pizza margherita

Nectarine and ricotta pizza with fresh basil:
nectarine and ricotta pizza

nectarine and ricotta pizza

Recipes
Marcella Hazen’s Tomato Sauce
Note: I watched the video on Food52 on blanching tomatoes, which I found to be helpful.

For the Sauce:

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled (see video on Food52 for guidance)
5 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt to taste

1. Place the prepared fresh tomatoes in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato.

2. Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Source: The Barefoot Contessa via Goop
Serves: Makes about 2 cups

4 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar

1. Set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen 2 layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth.

2. Pour the milk and stream into a stainless steel or enameled pot such as Le Creuset. Stir in the salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for 1 minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

3. Pour the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta. (I tend to like mine on the thicker side but some prefer it moister.) Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth and any remaining whey. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep refrigerated for 4 to 5 days.

Classic Pizza Margherita
Dough yields 4 pizzas serving 3 to 4 people total

1 recipe pizza dough (follow instructions here)
1 recipe tomato sauce
fresh mozzarella cheese
fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly after pizza is removed from oven

Nectarine and Fresh Ricotta Pizza
Dough yields 4 pizzas serving 3 to 4 people total

1 recipe pizza dough (follow instructions here)
1 recipe Homemade Ricotta Cheese
1-2 nectarines
olive oil
fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly after pizza is removed from oven

nectarine and ricotta pizza

Summer Squash Gratin

Summer Squash Gratin

Summer Squash Gratin

This is the recipe that broke the streak. A two-month-long, five-meal-rotation streak consisting of burgers, meatloaf, roast chicken, burgers and quiche. It was time. It was time to put some effort into dinner; to try something new; to open up a can of anchovies; to crack a jar of capers; to pour some brown butter over fresh bread crumbs. Yes, brown-butter bread crumbs. They are so good.

Let me tell you, my efforts paid off. I’m all about simple recipes these days, and when I have fresh ingredients on hand, simple can be best. But this recipe reminded me of ones I used to attempt all the time, ones with so many layers of flavors and textures, ones that leave eaters guessing, “what is that?” after every bite.

And don’t let me scare you: There’s nothing complicated about making this dish. It’s just that for me these days, anything that requires more than forming burger patties and tossing a salad seems like a chore. I took a few shortcuts, too, opting to make the salsa verde in one step in the food processor, which saved a wee bit of time, but I encourage you to read through the original recipe first on Food 52. It’s a fabulous site!

If you’re in need of a nice, summery, vegetarian dish to add to the mix, this is the one. It’s light — no cream in this gratin — and the vegetables remain firm even after 40 minutes of cooking. I served it as an entrée with a simple salad and some fresh bread, but it would make a wonderful side dish as well.

For all of you fathers out there, have a wonderful Father’s Day weekend! And to the four fathers in my life, I love you very much.

Summer Squash Gratin

Salsa Verde Ingredients

Salsa Verde

Mise en Place

Summer Squash from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
Ingredients In Bowl

Tossed Ingredients

Uncooked Gratin

Kitchen assistant sneaking a bite:
Sneaking a Bite

Kitchen assistant caught in the act:
Kitchen Assistant

Summer Squash Gratin with Salsa Verde and Gruyère

Source: Food 52 via Suzanne Goin
Serves 4 as an entrée

Salsa Verde:

1 teaspoon fresh marjoram or oregano leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint
1 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 small clove garlic
1 anchovy
1 tablespoon capers, drained (rinsed if salt-packed)
1/2 lemon, for juicing
Freshly ground black pepper

Gratin:

2 pounds summer squash
1 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cups sliced shallot
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 New Mexico chile or jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Make the salsa verde. Using a mortar and pestle (or a food processor), pound the herbs to a paste. You may have to do this in batches. Work in some of the olive oil, and transfer the mixture to a bowl. Pound the garlic and anchovy, and add them to the herbs. Gently pound the capers until they’re partially crushed, and add them to the herbs. Stir in the remaining oil, a pinch of black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste for balance and seasoning. (Note: I basically made this in one step in the food processor — I pulsed everything with the exception of the capers together, then stirred the capers in at the end.)

3. Make the gratin. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the squash into 1/8-inch-thick slices. (A mandolin makes this a quick task.) Toss the slices in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and let sit 10 minutes.

4. Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl. Heat a small saute pan over medium heat for 1 minutes. Swirl in the butter and cook for a few minutes, until it browns and smells nutty. Pour the brown butter over the breadcrumbs (being sure to scrape all the brown bits into the bowl with a rubber spatula). Wait a minute or so for the butter to cool, and toss well.

5. Drain the squash and transfer it to a large mixing bowl. Add the shallots, minced garlic, thyme, chile, 1/2 cup salsa verde, and some pepper. Toss to combine, and add the cheese and half the butter-coated breadcrumbs. Toss again, and taste for seasoning. (The raw garlic will taste strong at this point but will be delicious when cooked.)

6. Place the squash in a pretty 9-by-9-inch (or equivalent oblong-shaped) gratin dish. Scatter the remaining breadcrumbs over the top, and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the squash is tender and the top is crisp.

Summer Squash Gratin

Easiest Rack of Lamb

Cut Rack of Lamb

Cut Rack of Lamb

I think I found a magic sauce. It transformed my chicken-breast eating experience and now my rack-of-lamb-eating experience. Never would I have guessed that a simple stir of mayonnaise, mustard and some fresh herbs would play such a role in my meat-cooking endeavors these days. Seriously, everything this sauce touches turns to mouth-watering goodness.

Let’s see, how else can I sell this recipe to you? It takes five minutes to prepare. It’s foolproof. And if you enjoy gnawing on bones as if they were lollipops, this recipe is for you. Make it.

Rack of Lamb — Just Out of the Oven

Rosemary & Thyme

Lamb — Prepped for Oven

Cooked Rack of Lamb

Rack of Lamb

Serves 2
This rack of lamb goes beautifully with crispy fingerling potatoes.

1 rack of lamb, about a pound
kosher salt
fresh cracked pepper
2 T. mayonnaise
2 tsp. mustard
chopped fresh herbs*: rosemary, thyme, chives, mint, tarragon — whatever you have

*Rosemary and lamb always go well together but I adore tarragon with this recipe as well.

1. Preheat the oven to 475ºF. Place lamb on a parchment-lined (for easy clean-up) rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper on all sides. Mix together mayo, mustard and herbs. Spread in an even layer across the rack of lamb — you might not need it all.

2. Place pan in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 400º and bake for 10 more minutes. Take pan out of the oven and place lamb on a board to rest. Let rest for at least 10 minutes. Seriously, no less than 10 minutes — I can’t emphasize resting enough. Cut and serve.

Notes: The lamb takes about 20 minutes to cook but depending on the size of the rack, the temperature of the lamb (room temperature or cold), and the reliability of your oven, the time will vary slightly. It might take a teensy bit of practice to nail it. For example, I made a rack today that weighed .92 lbs, and I removed it before the 20-minute mark because after 18 minutes it felt perfectly firm.

Rack of Lamb

Lidia Bastianich’s Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

I haven’t been drawn to a recipe like this in awhile. It’s not that butternut squash with sage brown butter doesn’t sound insanely delicious — seriously, what sounds better this time of year? — it’s just that these days my brain surrenders and my eyes cross when I see too many steps in a recipe. I’m better off sticking to quick and easy (also insanely delicious).

But if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing — for planning, thinking, going all out to capture the essence of the season in a single dish — this is the recipe for you. You won’t be disappointed. Lidia Bastianich nailed it. Just as I was feeling the slightest bit uninspired, the October Bon Appetit arrived in my mailbox. Five minutes later, I ran out the door to buy a ricer, which has been on my wishlist for months. I had been told a ricer would change my life.
So far, it has.

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

sage, potatoes and parmesan

butternut squash

mixing gnocchi dough

gnocchi dough

gnocchi dough

cut gnocchi

shaped gnocchi

butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

Source: Lidia Bastianich via Bon Appetit
This recipe along with a few others I am dying to try appeared in the October 2010 Bon Appetit. If you’re feeling even the slightest bit uninspired, this is a good little spread to check out.
Serves 4 to 6

1 1-pound butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 12- to 14-ounce russet potato, peeled, quartered
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg, beaten to blend
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 3/4 cups (or more) all purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (I used less)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
Additional grated Parmesan cheese

Special Equipment:
Potato ricer (I bet a food mill would work well, too.)

Notes:
1. It helps to really read the recipe thoroughly before beginning.

2. You will have tons of leftover butternut squash.

3. I needed about 2 potatoes to get 2 cups.

4. I find it easier to cook gnocchi in small batches, so I think this meal makes a better dinner-for-two than a dinner-for-a-crowd. After I filled up one sheetpan with shaped gnocchi, I stuck in the freezer. After an hour or so, I scooped all of the gnocchi into a Ziplock bag and stored it in the freezer, where it now awaits for a future dinner.

5. Seeing how a friend and I polished off half the gnocchi in a single sitting, I feel the recipe more accurately serves 4.

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut squash lengthwise in half; discard seeds. Place squash halves, cut side up, on baking sheet and brush with oil. Roast until squash is very tender when pierced with skewer and browned in spots, about 1 1/2 hours. Cool slightly. Scoop flesh from squash into processor; puree until smooth. Transfer to medium saucepan; stir constantly over medium heat until juices evaporate and puree thickens, about 5 minutes. Cool. Measure 1 cup (packed) squash puree (reserve remaining squash for another use). Note: This can be made several days in advance.

2. Meanwhile, cook potato in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until very tender, less than 20 minutes. Drain. While potato is warm, press through potato ricer into medium bowl; cool completely. Measure 2 cups (loosely packed) riced potato (reserve remaining potato for another use).

3. Mix squash, potato, 1/2 cup Parmesan, egg, nutmeg, and salt in large bowl. Gradually add 1 3/4 cups flour, kneading gently into mixture in bowl until dough holds together and is almost smooth. If dough is very sticky, add more flour by tablespoonfuls. Turn dough out onto floured surface; knead gently but briefly just until smooth. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces.

4. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Sprinkle parchment lightly with flour. Working with 1 dough piece at a time, roll dough out on floured surface to about 1/2-inch-thick rope. Cut rope crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll gnocchi along back of fork tines dipped in flour, making ridges on 1 side. Transfer gnocchi to baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour. DO AHEAD Can be made 6 hours ahead. Keep chilled. Note: Gnocchi can be frozen at this point – freeze them first on a sheetpan, then transfer them to a Ziplock to prevent them from sticking together.

5. Working in 2 batches, cook gnocchi in large pot of boiling salted water until very tender, 15 to 17 minutes (gnocchi will float to surface but may come to surface before being fully cooked). Using slotted spoon, transfer gnocchi to same parchment-lined baking sheets. Cool. DO AHEAD Can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover loosely and chill. Note: It was hard for me to tell when they were done. I cooked them for about 12 minutes — I took one out, tasted it, and went with it.)

6. Cook butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat just until golden, stirring often, 3 to 4 minutes. Add sage; stir 1 minute. Add gnocchi; cook until heated through and coated with butter, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan. Serve with additional Parmesan. Note: Unless you have an enormous pan, it’s easier to cook the gnocchi and butter in smaller batches. Half of this recipe in one pan is doable.