Pasta

The Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta

Since I grew up in a home with a strong Italian background, pasta was a big part of my life. There was always a reason to eat pasta. Not feeling well? Here, have some pastina in chicken broth. Traveling tomorrow? Here, eat some angel hair with parmesan cheese.  Just got back from a long trip? Here, Grandma left a lasagna in the refrigerator.

Cooking pasta is something I’ve just always known how to do. I don’t remember being taught how to cook pasta. I just grew up helping my mom. What to do, and not to do, with pasta has always been common sense to me. As I’ve grown older, though, and met people from different backgrounds, I’ve come to realize that what I’ve always thought was common sense is really not common knowledge for many people.

And so here is a list of the common mistakes people make when cooking pasta. I like to refer to this list as the Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta.

  1. Using too small of a pot. Pasta is really starchy, and it expands while it cooks. It needs space to boil, otherwise you’ll end up with a gummy mess. You should use a pot around 6 quarts, even if you’re only doing half a pound of pasta.
  2. Not salting the water. This is your chance to flavor the pasta. If you don’t generously salt the water, your pasta will come out bland. To prevent salt from staining your precious pasta pot (yes, I used the word precious), wait until the water comes to a boil and then add the salt (just don’t forget!). How much salt? I don’t measure, of course, but I would say probably around 1 1/2  or 2 tablespoons.
  3. Adding oil to the water. I guess the thought behind this is that if you add oil, the pasta won’t stick together as it boils. Here’s the problem, though. Since oil floats on top of water, when you dump your pasta out, you’ll have pasta coated in oil and it won’t adhere to your sauce. Instead of adding oil to the water, just stir the pasta during the first few minutes of cooking and the pasta should be fine.
  4. Dumping all of the pasta water down the drain. I’ll admit that I didn’t learn this one until I was older. That salty, starchy pasta water is an excellent way to get sauces to adhere to your pasta. Even if you add just a small amount, the pasta and sauce will be so much happier together. Better yet, depending on the type of sauce you’re using, you can take the pasta out of the pot a few minutes early and let if finish cooking in the sauce and a bit of pasta water. I find this method particularly useful when doing very simple sauces, such as mushroom, wine and garlic. Just scoop the pasta and some water right into the skillet with the wine and mushrooms and everything will be quite delicious. If you wait until the pasta is done to toss it with the sauce, that’s okay too. Just be sure to do it in a large bowl off of the stove (so it doesn’t overcook) and toss immediately.
  5. Overcooking the pasta. Pasta should have a bite to it. Not crunchy but a nice bite. No one likes mushy pasta, except maybe babies and toddlers. To avoid overcooked pasta, look at the time recommended on the box and set your timer for a minute or two below that time. When the timer goes off, taste the pasta and keep tasting until it’s al dante. It will continue to cook a little out of the water, so get it out before it’s too late.
  6. Rinsing the cooked pasta. Sigh. That wonderful salt flavor just got rinsed down the drain. And the starch that will help the pasta stick to the sauce? Bye bye. Don’t rinse the pasta! The only, and I mean only, exception to this rule is if you’re preparing a cold pasta dish, such as a pasta salad, and you want to serve it immediately. Otherwise, resist the temptation to rinse your pasta.
  7. Putting too much on your pasta. Not everyone will agree with me on this one. In fact, I don’t even completely agree with myself on this one. Sometimes I do love a ton of sauce on my spaghetti. Most of the time, though, I like to keep my pasta simple. Nothing tastes better than pasta right out of the water, and so I hate to see that delicious pasta flavor covered up by too much. Some of my favorite pasta dishes will have a light sauce, such as a wine sauce or even just olive oil, a bit of cheese, and cracked pepper.

Every pasta shape tastes different to me, and every time I go into a specialty Italian store (such as Carfagna’s), I notice a shape I haven’t tried yet. Be adventurous with your pasta shapes and flavors. Also, think about the sauce you’re using. Pasta with ridges is ideal for heavier sauces, whereas something delicate, such as angel hair, is best with a very light sauce. Experiment with whole wheat vs white pasta. I find that whole wheat has a nuttier flavor and pairs well with pestos and wine sauces. Try egg pasta, if you haven’t before. Be bold. Think outside the spaghetti box.

 

Read More

One Method, Endless Pesto Possibilities

The key to learning to cook, and learning to cook well, is a willingness to experiment. If you must have exact recipes and exact ingredients then you will never feel completely comfortable in the kitchen. Cooking is learning a method and experimenting and tasting and tasting until you learn what works well together and what doesn’t.

Take pesto, for example. Sure, you can follow a recipe that shows you how to make a basic basil pesto. Or you can master the method behind making pesto. Once you understand the method, then the possibilities and ingredients are endless.

And so below are the things I have found make excellent pestos:

  1. Herbs, particularly basil. Basil is, of course, the key ingredient in a traditional pesto, and I have found it is by far the best herb to use, but why not throw in other herbs as well? Parsley works well. Even non-Italian herbs, such as cilantro, can give pesto a different twist.
  2. Greens. Not traditional, but such a good way to use greens! Spinach, arugula, and kale are my favorite. Each adds a unique taste and gives you a different pesto. Experiment with using different combinations.
  3. Garlic. Really, can you have pesto without garlic? I usually use at least 1-3 cloves, depending on how garlicky I want it to be.
  4. Nuts. Pine nuts are traditional, but, in my opinion, they are not worth the money. Experiment with other nuts. I personally love almonds and pistachios in pestos.
  5. Cheese. Though not necessary, I personally love adding cheese. Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan and Romano, are best. Also good: feta. Just don’t add too much. A handful will do. You should have far more greens and herbs than cheese.
  6. An acid. Lemon juice is traditional. About 1/2 a lemon will do the trick. Also try: Lime juice. Vinegar.
  7. Olive oil. Just enough to make it smooth.
  8. Salt and pepper. Want it spicy? Add red pepper flakes.

A bulk of the pesto should be herbs and greens. Put everything, except the olive oil, in the food processor and pulse it several times. Add the olive oil while pulsing and process until smooth. Taste and adjust and write down what works well together.

Though my favorite way to serve pesto is on pasta (no surprise, right?), you can also put it on sandwiches or meat or use it as a dressing.

 

Pictured below is a combination of arugula, spinach, basil, slithered almonds, garlic, Ramon cheese, feta cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.

pesto-4

So what’s your favorite way to make pesto?

 

Read More

Bison Stuffed Italian Shells

I was craving meat recently (it doesn’t happen often) and so this recipe happened. This is a Kelly Taylor original, so be ready for approximate measurements.

To begin, heat olive oil, over medium-high heat, in a heavy bottomed pan (such as a dutch oven). Add:

1 1/2 pounds of ground bison

Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until it it has absorbed all of the fat and has browned. Then add:

1/2 a small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic, minced

Allow to cook for a few minutes, then add:

2 large tablespoons of tomato paste
3/4 cup of white wine

Turn the heat down to medium-low and allow the meat to simmer.

In the meantime, either heat up or cook your favorite marinara sauce. Also, bring a large pot of water to boil and cook a package of jumbo shells for 4 minutes. Do not cook the shells all of the way, otherwise they will overcook in the oven.

Add a couple ladles of marinara sauce to the bison meat. This helps to add more flavor and make it extra moist. Also add:

2 large handfuls of chopped parsley

Stir it all together. It should look like this:

bison-2

Next pour some marinara sauce onto the bottom of a large 13×9 baking dish (just enough to cover the bottom). Then carefully spoon meat into each shell and line the shells up into the prepared baking dish.

bison-3

Once each shell is full, top the shells with marinara sauce and sprinkle with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese.

bison-4

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes, covered, and an additional 5-10 minutes uncovered.

bison-5

When done, sprinkle the top with fresh parsley and enjoy!

My basic marinara sauce: 

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
red pepper flakes
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 6 oz can of tomato paste
1/2 cup of white wine
2 28 oz cans of whole tomatoes, pureed, or frozen tomatoes, also pureed
salt and pepper

Sauté the red pepper flakes and onions until soft, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and let cook for one minute. Add the tomato paste and wine and let cook for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and season again with salt and pepper. Let simmer for at least an hour. Do ahead and refrigerate or freeze.

During the summer months, I also add fresh herbs, such as basil. Dried herbs are fine, as well.

Read More

Butternut Squash Manicotti- An Experiment

It has been so long since my last post! That’s what happens when you work in the retail industry during the holidays. I feel like I’m just now getting back to my usual routine, which means you can expect to see recipes on a regular basis again!

My first post is not a usual recipe. It’s more of a journal entry of my latest experiment. About a year or so ago, I had the idea to stuff manicotti with butternut squash, yet I never got around to it. This entry below is my first try. I didn’t go by a specific recipe and just sort of made it up as I went, so excuse the lack of proper measurements.

squash-2

I began by roasting one medium butternut squash and one rather small one (a large squash would have been ideal, but this is what I had on hand). In order to roast, I cut off the stem and then, using a sharp chef’s knife, I cut the squash in half, lengthwise. Then I placed it on a cookie sheet, seed side up. I spread a touch of olive oil on each half, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and baked at 400 degrees. The time is, of course, based on how big the squash is, but I have found that you need at least an hour for a small squash, and an hour and a half for a large one.

Once done, I let them cool in the refrigerator. (I recommend roasting the squash in the morning or even the day before, if you have the time).

Next I purreed the squash in my food processor and then added it to a small sauce pan. Once it came to a boil, I added:

between a 1/4-1/2 cup of mascarpone cheese
about 2 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano cheese
1 clove of garlic, minced or grated
a handful of fresh parsley
salt and pepper

I stirred it all together until the cheese had melted and then removed it from the heat.

In the meantime, I boiled my manicotti shells for just 4 minutes. You absolutely do not want to cook the shells all the way, otherwise they will be overcooked and mushy when you bake the dish in the oven. You want to take the manicotti shells out when they are still very al dente.

Then it’s simply a matter of filling the shells, which is both fun and messy. I have tried various methods for manicotti over the years. Sometimes I cut off the corner of a plastic storage bag and use it like a pastry bag. Other times I just use a small spoon. Either method is equally successful and messy. The above method was enough to stuff 8, rather sloppy, shells.

Now, for this recipe, I melted a heaping spoonful of mascarpone cheese in a saucepan, added about a 1/4 cup of the pasta water and pepper, and then poured that mixture on top of the filled shells. I think any sauce would work, though.

Then I topped it with some more Pecorino Romano cheese and stuck it in the oven, covered for 20 minutes, and 8 minutes uncovered.

Next time, I may try ricotta cheese instead of mascarpone (the mascarpone was richer than I had in mind), and may add in egg to help bind the mixture more. But for now, here’s how the final product looked.

squash-1

Read More

Turkey Bolognese

Fall is here and with it comes cooler temperatures and something that may surprise some of you: I start craving meat. Unlike many people who live for grilled meat during the summer, I could easily live, and be very satisfied, feasting on every fruit and vegetable I can possibly afford to buy at the farmers market. That’s not to say that I turn vegan during the summer, but I certainly can go days without meat and be content (with the exception of seafood when I’m at the Cape). When fall comes, however, I start craving those slow cooked and hearty meals and, though I love vegetables more than most people, I’ll be the first to say that many of my favorite traditional meat dishes cannot be replaced with vegetables. With that said, since I don’t eat beef and rarely eat red meat in general, I find some meats to be too rich and fatty for my taste, these days. Therefore you’ll find that I sometimes replace a traditional beef dish with a leaner meat, such as turkey. My bolognese is the perfect example.

I learned how to make bolognese at a cooking class at Sur la Table. There the instructor used a pound of beef and a pound of pork. Though it is traditional, that combination is far too rich for my taste. I, instead, have found that dark meat turkey works very well. But just because I’m using turkey, don’t think that I skimp on the other traditional fatty parts of this dish. To me, when you make something such as bolognese, you have to either go all the way or not make it at all. This is not a dish that, in my opinion, can be made with low fat milk and white meat turkey. It’s just not the same. Therefore, it is important to use ground turkey thigh and whole milk.

And one note about the turkey. I, unfortunately, can’t easily find ground turkey that’s raised locally. I bought mine at Whole Foods, and I must admit that it was the first time I bought meat from a grocery store in at least a year. But I know that if I can’t find the meat I need locally, Whole Foods is the next best choice (at least in this area).

With that said, this recipe is all about a few ingredients cooked slowly. Each step builds the complexity and richness of the dish. Do not rush this dish! 

bolognese-1

You begin by chopping the following:

1 large yellow onion
1 large carrot

1 stalk of celery

You want to chop them as finely as possible. I have found that the best way to do it is to give them a rough chop with my chef’s knife and then dump them in a food processor and let the blade chop them the rest of the way for me. The proccessor can get them much finer than I can. Just don’t let them turn to mush.

In the meantime, heat olive oil over medium heat in a heavy bottomed pan or dutch oven. Saute the above vegetables until soft and lightly browned, about ten minutes. Season with salt. Then turn up the heat and add:

2 pounds of ground turkey thigh

I have considered trying 1 pound of turkey and 1 pound of ground pork, but the turkey is so wonderful on its own that I have yet to do it. And as I stated above, it is very important to use dark meat. The white meat just doesn’t have enough flavor. Also, you may want to add a little more olive oil with the turkey, if the pan looks dry.

Cook the meat on medium-high heat until it is nicely browned and it has absorbed all of the fat. That’s an important step that you don’t want to skip. Once the fat has been absorbed, add:

2 cups of red wine

This is an Italian recipe, after all. Of course there’s red wine. I often use chianti, but I honestly know very little about wine to know if it’s the best choice or not.

Once again, you must let the meat cook until all of the wine has been absorbed. Also be sure to scrap up all of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the wine has cooked down and the pan is dry again, turn the heat down to medium low and add:

12 ounces (two small cans) of tomato paste
whole milk

Stir the tomato paste into the meat while you add the milk. Add enough milk to completely cover the meat. And now you wait and let the meat absorb the milk. This step will take around 60-90 minutes. Stir every so often and season with salt and pepper towards the end. Be sure to taste. Actually, in my opinion, it is impossible not to. It smells so amazing that I actually have a hard time stopping myself from tasting too much. I’ve been known to eat quite a bit of it right out of the pan. When it’s almost done, it will look like this:

bolognese-2

As for the pasta, I often serve it with rigatoni. The ridges on the rigatoni hold the bolognese well, plus it’s a sturdy pasta. This time around, however, I served it with my current obsession: bucatoni. I must say that it was a delicious choice. Whichever pasta you choose, make sure it can handle a heavy sauce.

Serve with a touch of parmesan or pecorino cheese on top.

Read More

Roasted Tomatoes Part Three: Roasted Tomato Sauce with Peppers, Rigatoni and a Simple Basil Pesto

Ok, so these tomatoes are really only semi-roasted. When making sauces/soups/salsas, I like my roasted tomatoes to still be good and juicy. Still, this tomato recipe is everything I love about summer and tomatoes, all in one big dish.

First, before I get to the recipe, a few notes:

  • I often read recipes that first instruct you to remove the seeds and peel the skin off before using in a sauce. You’ll see that I didn’t do that here. If I was going to roast them for hours, I would probably remove the seeds, but for this sauce, I find it isn’t necessary. I don’t like to waste any part of these precious tomatoes. Of course, this is a personal preference, so certainly remove the seeds and skin, if you wish.
  • As for the pasta, I used rigatoni simply because I happened to have it on hand, and I was in the mood for a good, thick, chewy, white pasta. I think you could use just about any pasta shape, white or whole wheat, long or short (just as long as it can hold the sauce).
  • The pesto described below really isn’t a true pesto. Usually I use almonds and lemon juice when I make pesto, but for this dish, I really just wanted to savor the wonderful basil flavor with the tomatoes. The pesto, therefore, is very simple.

And now, the recipe:

tomatoes-8

Begin with 6 large beautiful heirloom plum tomatoes. (For those of you in Ohio, I got mine from Northridge Organic Farm.) Cut them in half and sprinkle with salt, freshly ground pepper, and rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil and spread out on a baking sheet. Toss 3 cloves of garlic on there, as well (peels still on).

Bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes. They will look like this when they’re done:

tomatoes-9

In the meantime, heat olive oil in the bottom of a heavy bottomed pot. Add:

1/2 a yellow onion, finely chopped
1 large red or green bell pepper, chopped
red pepper flakes

Sprinkle with salt and let them sauté for at least 10 minutes. Then add:

2 large tablespoons of tomato paste
1/4 cup of water or white wine

Once the tomatoes and garlic are done, puree them in a food processor until smooth (don’t forget to remove the garlic peels!), then add them to the pot. Let everything simmer together for at least 20 minutes.

While the sauce simmers, make the pesto by adding the following ingredients to a food processor:

2-3 cups of fresh basil
1 clove of garlic
1/4 cup of Parmesan or Romano cheese
salt and pepper

Pour in olive oil while pureeing the above ingredients until the basil is finely chopped and the pesto can easily be poured out of the container. Pour the pesto into a small bowl and set aside.

To serve, you can either mix the sauce in with your pasta of choice or spoon the sauce on top of the pasta while serving. Top the pasta with some of the pesto and sprinkle it with Romano or parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

pasta-8

Read More