Shishito Pepper Pesto Pizza


I’ve been home for two months, and while I’ve been baking, cooking, and sharing food with my family and friends, I haven’t blogged once. Sure, I had a bake sale, made some diabetes-inducing sticky buns for Father’s Day breakfast, and burned through our stashes of olive oil and butter at an unprecedented rate, but nearly everything I made was an old recipe of mine or from a cookbook—tried and true recipes that I had been waiting for months to make in a kitchen equipped with more than a not-quite-level stove, rickety table, and a medicine cabinet mirror. I made pots of black beans, thai curries, and dozens of cookies, but with all of those recipes already tucked away on this site I saw little point in adding to the redundancy that seems to take over the internet, one food blog at a time.

Last night’s pizza was what finally convinced me to log back on to Word Press. Also, my mom asked if I had let the blog go dormant, and you just can’t ignore a comment like that from the people that  raised you and are sending you to college (hi, Mom and Dad), so I figured a post on this pizza was in order.

Homemade pizza is a staple at our house, and while we normally go the carrot-walnut or margherita route I thought it was time to shake things up a bit with a few handfuls of shishito peppers that were taunting me in the crisper drawer. Shishito peppers, or their Spanish equivalent, padrón peppers, have been cropping up in recipes and restaurants more regularly, especially now that Trader Joe’s carries them and nearly every tapas restaurant serves blistered padróns alongside squares of Tortilla Española. They should come with a warning though: most of them are fairly mild, but every so often you come across a real scorcher. (Engineers out there: the probability of a spicy pepper is about 10%, though that statistic is a rough guideline when you factor in growing conditions and other environmental factors. You may just have to dive into this pizza and hedge your bets.)

Once blistered in a hot pan, shishito peppers are smoky with a lingering grassiness, and when paired with golden brown mushrooms and cherry tomatoes that have been sautéed in a hot pan until split open, you’ll wonder you’ve never piled the three onto a pizza with fresh mozzarella and aged parmesan. A final few dollops of homemade basil pesto when the pizza comes out of the oven ties the whole pie together, and before you know it you’ll be wishing you had made extra.


Shishito Pepper Pesto Pizza

Makes 4 10-inch pizzas, serves 4-6

2 lbs pizza dough

1 lb shishito or padrón peppers

4 teaspoons olive oil

Kosher or sea salt

1/2 yellow onion, finely diced

1 lb cherry tomatoes

1lb button mushrooms, sliced

Cornmeal, for the pizza peel

12 oz. fresh mozzarella, torn into 1/2 inch pieces

1/2 cup fresh grated parmesan

1/4 cup freshly made pesto

  1. Once your dough has been made, divide it into 8 oz. portions and roll them into even balls. Place on a lightly floured surface, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour, until nearly doubled in size.
  2. Preheat the oven to 500F and place your pizza stone on the top rack of your oven.
  3. While the dough rises prepare all of the toppings:
  4. For the blistered peppers: Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over high high for 5 minutes. Add the peppers and 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and cook, stirring every minute until the peppers are blistered in spots and tender, 8-10 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a small bowl and let cool slightly, then remove and discard the stems and cut the peppers into 1 inch pieces.
  5. For the tomatoes: Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil over medium heat in a 12-inch skillet. Add the onions and saute for 2-3 minutes, until nearly translucent. Add the tomatoes and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the tomatoes have split and have begun to cook down. Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl and set aside.
  6. For the mushrooms: Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil in the same pan that you used to cook the tomatoes (unless you really like doing dishes, in which case go right ahead and get out a fresh pan), then add the mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Saute until tender and golden brown, 12-15 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and set aside.
  7. To assemble the pizzas: Roll out the risen dough into a thin, 11-12 inch circle, then transfer to a pizza peel dusted with cornmeal. Top evenly with 1/4 of the tomatoes–this will not be a pizza with a traditional layer of sauce, so don’t worry if the tomatoes haven’t become soft enough to be considered a sauce.
  8. Add 1/4 each of the mushrooms and the peppers in an even layer on the pizza. Spread 3 oz. of the cheese in an even layer on top of the vegetables, then sprinkle on 1 tablespoon of parmesan. Transfer the pizza from the peel to the preheated pizza stone, and bake until golden brown and crisp, 11-14 minutes.
  9. Remove the pizza from the oven, and lightly dollop 1 tablespoon of pesto over the top of the pizza–again this should be more like a Jackson Pollack painting, than a smooth layer of pesto. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of parmesan over the top, then slice into wedges and serve. Repeat with the remaining pizza dough and toppings.

Click here for a printable version of the recipe.


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Fresh Pasta: Malloreddus and Fettuccine

About once or twice a year I get the urge to make fresh pasta. I don’t make it all that often because it’s a pretty involved process and our (very active) family of four can put away a significant amount of pasta, so you really have to be ready to spend a chunk of the day pretending you’re Lidia Bastianich behind your kitchen counter. When I want to take the extra time to roll out fresh pasta, I seize the opportunity, because there is nothing quite like a hot plate of pasta that just minutes ago was rolled out on the countertop. The pasta strands are unbelievably light and tender without being mushy, and the clean wheat flavor really shines through a simple sauce.

There are two main types of pasta dough that Italians make: pasta all’uovo, or fresh pasta dough made with eggs, and pasta fresca di semola di grano duro, or fresh pasta made with semolina flour. A few nights ago for dinner, I made fettuccine from pasta all’uovo and malloreddus from semolina dough. Although the ingredients for the two pasta doughs vary slightly, the mixing and kneading process is quite similar. The steps below are shown using the pasta all’uovo.

The dough can be made either in the food processor or on the countertop with just a fork—the food processor will save you some time and effort, but I almost always use the countertop method because I would rather spend a few extra minutes kneading pasta dough rather than use up precious dishwasher space to clean the food processor.

Start with a mound of flour, then create a deep cavity in the center of the mound with your fist.

Pour the eggs into the cavity, then pierce the yolks with the tines of a fork, and begin gently beating the eggs while slowly incorporating more flour into the beaten eggs.

After a few minutes, you’ll end up with a shaggy mass of dough that you can begin kneading with your hands. After 15-25 minutes (or one episode of The Mindy Project), the dough will be smooth, supple, and feel like a dry earlobe. Then it’s time for the dough to rest; it takes at least 30 minutes for the gluten molecules to relax and allow for the dough to hydrate fully, so wrap the dough in plastic wrap, stick it in the fridge, and wait for a bit before you start rolling the pasta into the sfoglia, or pasta sheets.

As a comparison, the photos above show what the semolina dough looks like before and after kneading.

Once the dough has rested, it’s time to roll out the pasta dough. The dough can be rolled with either a rolling pin or a pasta roller, but the pasta roller is so much easier and faster to use than doing it by hand. The dough is cut into portions, then rolled starting on the widest setting to the thinnest setting, with about 3 passes though each numbered setting. The pasta dough is properly rolled when it’s smooth and thin enough that light can pass though it and your hand is clearly visible when placed beneath the pasta sheet.

Once you’ve rolled out the sfoglia, let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes so that it will cut more cleanly into fettuccine. While it’s resting, you can roll out the remaining portions of dough.

Cutting the dough into the fettuccine is the easy part. Either roll the pasta sheets like you would a yoga mat and cut crosswise into strips, or cut it on a fettuccine-sized attachment on a pasta machine. Liberally dust the cut pasta with all-purpose flour, then pile the noodles loosely on a dishcloth dusted with flour while you cut the rest of the pasta.

Thin, fresh pasta like this cooks almost instantly, so it needs just one to two minutes in boiling, salted water before it’s perfectly al dente. Toss it in a simple light sauce like pesto, butter, or a light tomato sauce (pictured above is a sautéed garlic and olive oil sauce), and serve the hot pasta immediately with a little parmesan.

Now for the semolina dough:

Semolina dough is much sturdier than pasta all’uovo, so I use it to create pastas like cavatelli, or small dumpling shapes like these malloreddus. Malloreddus are originally from Sardinia, and occasionally include saffron in the dough for color and flavor. You can sometimes find them sold as dried pasta, but they can also be made fresh. They’re much less time consuming to shape than any sort of noodle or filled pasta, but they do take a little bit longer to cook. The dough gets rolled into long ropes about half an inch in diameter, then cut into half-inch pieces, a little smaller than a piece of gnocchi.

To give the malloreddus a curved shape and ridged exterior, they’re traditionally rolled on the back of a wicker basket, but a cheese grater is commonly used as well with similar results.

Malloreddus take about eight to nine minutes to cook in the pasta water before they get tossed with sauce (pictured below is a brown-butter and shallot sauce) and served.

Pasta all’uovo for fettuccine

Serves 4

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

  1. Mound the flour on a countertop or large cutting board, then create a deep cavity in the center of the mound with your fist.
  2. Pour the eggs into the cavity, then pierce the yolks with the tines of a fork, and begin gently beating the eggs while slowly incorporating more flour into the beaten eggs.
  3. After a few minutes, you’ll end up with a shaggy mass of dough that you can begin kneading with your hands. After 15-25 minutes (or one episode of The Mindy Project), the dough will be smooth, supple, and feel like a dry earlobe. Then it’s time for the dough to rest; it takes at least 30 minutes for the gluten molecules to relax and allow for the dough to hydrate fully, so wrap the dough in plastic wrap, stick it in the fridge, and wait for a bit before you start rolling the pasta into the sfoglia, or pasta sheets.
  4. Cutting the dough into the fettuccine is the easy part. Either roll the pasta sheets like you would a yoga mat and cut crosswise into strips, or cut it on a fettuccine-sized attachment on a pasta machine. Liberally dust the cut pasta with all-purpose flour, then pile the noodles loosely on a dishcloth dusted with flour while you cut the rest of the pasta.
  5. Thin, fresh pasta like this cooks almost instantly, so it needs just one to two minutes in boiling, salted water before it’s perfectly al dente. Toss it in a simple light sauce like pesto, butter, or a light tomato sauce, and serve the hot pasta immediately with a little parmesan.

Pasta di semola di grano duro for malloreddus

Serves 4

1 lb. semolina flour

200 ml (3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon) filtered water

  1. Mound the flour on a countertop or large cutting board, then create a deep cavity in the center of the mound with your fist.
  2. Pour the water into the cavity, then use the tines of a fork to slowly beat the water into the semolina flour.
  3. After a few minutes, you’ll end up with a shaggy mass of dough that you can begin kneading with your hands. After 15-25 minutes (or one episode of The Mindy Project), the dough will be smooth, supple, and feel like a dry earlobe. Then it’s time for the dough to rest; it takes at least 30 minutes for the gluten molecules to relax and allow for the dough to hydrate fully, so wrap the dough in plastic wrap, stick it in the fridge, and wait for a bit before you start forming the mallorredus.
  4. Cut the dough into six pieces, then roll each piece into a long, even rope about ½ inch in diameter. Cut the rope into ½ inch pieces, a little smaller than a piece of gnocchi. Roll each piece off the ridged side of a cheese grater (see pictures in the post for more details), then place the malloreddus on a dishcloth dusted with flour.
  5. Cook the malloreddus in boiling salted water for 8-9 minutes, until al dente. Drain and toss with sauce, then serve immediately.

Click here for printable versions of these recipes!

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

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As anyone who reads food blogs or has researched Italian cooking will know, this sauce is nothing new. In The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the late Marcella Hazan outlines a recipe for what may be the most simplistic tomato sauce yet. Imagine a sauce made solely of simmered San Marzano tomatoes, butter, and onion—no olive oil, garlic, basil, or oregano to overpower the delicate tomatoes.

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You’re probably skeptical at this point, as I was too. There’s no browning of aromatics, rounds of deglazing the pan with wine, or other steps that cooks typically use to build flavor in a long-simmered sauce. It goes against the grain of loud, theatrical recipes designed to wow dinner guests. Yet once you try this balanced, fully flavored sauce you’ll know that Marcella was right all along. It’s smooth on the palate without any jarring bits of minced garlic—or worse chopped carrot or celery—and goes wonderfully with a pot of pasta. It’s all you need for lunch, along with your appetite and a little bit of parmesan.

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(You may be blanching at the significant amount of butter in the photo above, but I doubled the recipe for the sauce so that there was a stash in the freezer for future pasta nights when I’m on the other side of the country and Aidan’s at a loss for what to make for dinner. Besides, five tablespoons of butter for one batch of sauce is not an exorbitant amount, so trust the recipe and go with it—there’s still less fat in the recipe than in a batch of pesto.)

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After 45 minutes of slow simmering, you’ll see that the sauce has reduced slightly, and that the butter has fully melted and rises to the top of the sauce. The onion has done its job, so it gets discarded, and a pinch of salt is added for seasoning.

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I prefer a smoother sauce, so I used a food processor to break down the larger chunks of tomato, but you could absolutely leave it as is for a more textured sauce.

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Toss the sauce with hot al dente pasta—I prefer a short, tubular shape like rigatoni but I’ve seen longer shapes like spaghetti used with great success—and serve it immediately. Toss the pasta with just enough sauce to coat the pasta without leaving a pool in the bottom of the bowl, which works out to be about 1 ½ cups per pound of pasta.

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Add parmesan and serve immediately.

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Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

Makes enough sauce for 1-1 ½ lbs. of pasta

1, 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano

5 tablespoons salted butter

1 onion, peeled and halved

Salt, to taste

  1. Pour the can of tomatoes into a large pot or saucepan, then gently crush by hand. Add the butter and onion, then place the pot over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, then simmer for 45-60 minutes, until the fat floats free on top of the sauce, crushing the tomatoes gently with a wooden spoon occasionally.
  2. Remove the onion from the sauce and discard.
  3. Adjust the salt according to your preferences. With the variety of salted butter that I used, I found I only needed 2 healthy pinches of salt, but add salt until the sauce tastes well-seasoned and like something you would like to eat.
  4. If you would like a smoother sauce, transfer the sauce to a food mill, blender, or food processor and process until it has reached your desired level of smoothness.
  5. Toss the sauce with hot, al dente pasta, about 1 ½ cups of sauce for every pound of cooked pasta. Serve immediately with parmesan cheese.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Homemade Lattes

I started making espressos when I was eight, long before I had even tried my first sip of coffee. On ski trips with a full house of my parents’ friends, I would sit in an arm chair next to the espresso machine and watch as dozens of double espressos and lattes were made, one after another, in preparation for a full day on the slopes. After a few days of watching engineers methodically tamp down espresso grounds, they started to teach me—I could barely see the milk I was foaming, but it quickly became my favorite part of the morning. Now, I get to take care of the coffee whenever we spend a week hiking or skiing in Canada, and I really can’t think of a better vacation job. After ten years, I know how long it takes for the machine to heat up, how much coffee we’ll need for a week, and how everyone takes their coffee. Making a great latte isn’t too hard, but it involves a few steps, and I thought I would share what I’ve been taught over the years.

While the water for the espresso heats up, grind the beans for the espresso, then place them in the espresso hopper—the grounds should slightly mound above the hopper.


To ensure that the espresso tastes dark and full-bodied, tamp the grounds firmly with the plastic press, known as the espresso tamper, until they are tightly compacted. A lot of professional baristas say to exert 30-40 pounds of pressure on the grounds, but I’ve never actually measured how much force I use when tamping down the grounds; I just like to make sure that the coffee looks like firmly packed brown sugar.

Once the water is hot enough, it’s time to pull the espresso shot.

The ideal espresso is thick and dark, and if it pours slowly out of the hopper you’ll know it’s a good one. The ideal length of time for pulling the espresso shot is 21-24 seconds, and a time closer to 24 seconds will yield a sweet, well-rounded espresso.

The dark gold color is called the crema, and is another mark of a good espresso. Turn off the water right before the espresso coming out of the machine begins to turn into something that resembles watery hotel coffee. Now, you could always stop here and enjoy the double espresso that’s been made, but you can also steam some milk and make a great latte.

To start, you must heat the water for steaming the milk (that’s what the bottom left button indicates), because the water for steaming the milk is heated to a higher temperature than what is used to pull the espresso. While the water heats up, prepare the milk: I’ve found that high-fat milk (either 2% or whole) produces the best foam, and you’ll need five to six ounces (about ¾ cup) of milk for one latte. Pour it into the milk pitcher, and add a thermometer to help gauge the milk temperature.

Turn on the milk steamer and insert the steaming wand into the milk, then slowly draw the pitcher down until the wand just grazes the surface of the milk—this will help create the foam. Let the milk steam here until it reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then move the pitcher up until the wand is submerged in the milk and turn the steamer up until the milk moves in a slightly circular pattern, until the milk reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn off the steamer and set the milk on the counter.

Now it’s time to make the latte. Whack the milk pitcher on the countertop a few times to get rid of any large bubbles.

Pour the milk into the espresso, gently shaking your wrist so that the foam is poured in as well. To finish, use a knife, chopstick, or stirring stick to drag a design in the latte if desired, then enjoy immediately.

Pasta with Fennel Braised in White Wine


This dish is for anyone who has declared an aversion to black licorice or fennel seeds. Despite what you may think, fennel bulbs—unlike fennel seeds or black licorice—are a much milder flavor than the name indicates. I don’t care if you won’t touch black twizzlers (because everyone knows that red is the best flavor), but have you ever tried fennel bulbs braised with onions in white wine, olive oil, and lemon juice until the fennel bulbs are so tender that they yield under the slight pressure of a fork and marry perfectly with al dente pasta? It’s nothing to be afraid of.


You see, once the fennel has the chance to cook down for a little bit, the flavors mellow out and become sweet, but not overly so. By the time the pasta water has come to a boil and the pasta is cooked, the scent of the fennel braising in the pan will become irresistible.


When the pasta and vegetables are both ready, the dish gets finished with a sort of faux-Gremolata. Gremolata is an Italian condiment used to finish a dish consisting of garlic, lemon zest, parsley, and olive oil. To preserve the delicate flavors of this pasta dish, I omitted the garlic and used a mixture of fresh basil (to mimic the anise flavors in the fennel) and parsley for the herbs. A shower of parmesan cheese completes this pasta dish, making for an elegant meal that can still be made on a weeknight—even if you don’t like black licorice.


Pasta with Fennel Braised in White Wine

Serves 4-6

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 bulbs fennel, cut lengthwise then cut crosswise into ½ inch slices

1 onion, cut in half and sliced with the grain into ¼ inch slices

Sea Salt

Pinch of red pepper flakes

½ cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons lemon juice

¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, chives, or a combination thereof)

Zest of 1 lemon

1 lb. of a short pasta shape, like shells, penne, rigatoni, or fusilli

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the fennel and onion and sear for 2-3 minutes until the fennel and onions are beginning to turn golden brown. Add ½ teaspoon sea salt, the red pepper flakes, and the white wine, then turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for 20-25 minutes until the fennel is golden brown, very tender, and the wine has reduced. Add the lemon juice and cook for 1 minute, until slightly reduced.
  2. Meanwhile, mix together the chopped herbs, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon sea salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot, then add 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain and place in a large bowl. Add the fennel, and bowl of herbs, then toss until thoroughly combined. Adjust seasonings to taste, then serve immediately topped, with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Farrotto


For a very long time, Risotto seemed to me like a dish meant only for special occasions, mainly because making risotto in the traditional manner requires at least 40 minutes of constant stirring and ladling to carefully and gradually coax out the starches that are held underneath the surface of Arborio rice grains. It’s a labor of love, but the end result of a perfectly creamy and al dente bowl of risotto is worth it.

Or, at least, I thought it was a worthwhile use of my time until I discovered the Cook’s Illustrated technique for risotto with minimal stirring. What they do is add all of the cooking liquid in the beginning of the process and simmer the rice briskly until al dente. The abundance of simmering liquid agitates the grains just enough to slowly release their starches without constant stirring. In much less time than it takes to prepare a bowl of traditional risotto, you can have a bowl of perfectly creamy, hands-free risotto that tastes just as good as a traditional risotto.

However, this is not a recipe for risotto, but farrotto. Farro is an Italian grain similar to wheat and it has an incredibly toothsome texture with just enough chew. I prefer farro to Arborio or Canaroli rice, and it has the added benefit of being a whole grain. Farrotto has a wonderful texture and is cooked in the same manner as risotto: a hot pan with some olive oil, onion, and garlic, a quick toasting of grains, a splash of white wine, and a good amount of hot cooking liquid. The final cooking step, known as the mantecatura (or mixing in of the butter), involves vigorously stirring in a touch of butter and some good parmesan cheese.


The texture off risotto and farrotto is often described as all’onda (wavy) for its loose but not soupy consistency. Farrotto can be enhanced in any number of ways, with a vegetables such as asparagus or mushrooms stirred in, or even some fresh chopped herbs, but I prefer the simplicity of parmesan and butter. A final drizzle of truffle oil or good olive oil is a nice addition, but no matter what it’s a delicious dish that makes any meal taste like a special occasion.


Farrotto

Serves 4-6 as a side dish

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ cups (9 oz.) semi-pearled farro (see note)

½ cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon sea salt

4 ½ cups water (see note)

½ cup grated parmesan, plus extra for serving

1 ½ tablespoons butter

Truffle oil or good olive oil to finish, if desired

  1. In a large pot (at least 4 quart capacity), heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot then add the onion and sauté until translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 30-60 seconds. Add the farro and stir thoroughly to coat each grain with the olive oil, 1-2 minutes. Pour in the white wine and simmer, stirring constantly, until the wine is absorbed. Add the sea salt and 4 cups water, bring mixture to a vigorous simmer, then cover and simmer briskly for 25-30 minutes over medium heat, covered, until the farro is almost tender, stirring every 10 minutes.
  2. Stir the farro once it is almost tender, then stir in the final ½ cup water let it sit off heat for 5 minutes before stirring again to redistribute the farrotto. Stir in the parmesan and butter, adjust for seasonings to taste, then portion into individual bowls. Serve immediately with some grated parmesan and a drizzle of truffle oil or olive oil, if desired.

Note: There are multiple farro varieties and each will behave a little bit differently in the risotto and will require a different cooking time or liquid content. Here are a few general guidelines:

If using Trader Joe’s Quick-Cooking Farro: 4 1/2 cups water and 25-30 minutes of cooking

If using semi-pearled Farro: 4 1/2-5 1/2 cups water and 30-40 minutes of cooking

If using traditional (un-pearled Farro): 8-9 cups water and 50-60 minutes of cooking

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

Semolina Pine Nut Cookies with Orange Zest

Welcome back to Cookie Monday! Enjoy this week’s installment:


If I were a Sicilian grandmother, this is probably the sort of cookie that I would make in my rustic kitchen while sipping a glass of Chianti. However, I’m not a Sicilian grandmother, I’m just a high school student that thinks up cookie recipes during the school day, and then bakes cookies from recipes scrawled in the margins of my calculus notes. This particular batch of cookies I was particularly pleased with, from the crisp edges to the rich interior with the roasted undertones of fresh pine nuts. A few teaspoons of orange zest brighten up the finished cookies and give the kitchen a wonderful scent that permeates the air while the cookies bake.

I was a little apprehensive about how the cookies would taste, especially given that the combination of semolina, orange, and pine nuts is one more commonly seen in pasta dishes with a dusting of parmesan cheese, but they are a wonderful change from plain sugar cookies. After just one bite of these, Aidan requested that I “make them again soon,” which is not something that he says every day. The next time you see a bag of pine nuts sitting around in your pantry, don’t think pesto, think cookies.


Semolina Pine Nut Cookies with Orange Zest

Makes about 3 dozen cookies (2-3 inches in diameter)

½ cup raw pine nuts

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 ½ cups granulated sugar, plus 1/3 cup for coating

1 egg

½ teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons orange zest

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup semolina flour (also known as durum wheat flour)

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon table salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the pine nuts on one of the baking sheets and toast in the preheated oven for 5-6 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown. Chop finely, and set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and 1 ½ cups sugar on medium speed until fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and orange zest and beat on medium until well combined. Scrape down the bowl, then add the flour, semolina flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, then mix on low speed until almost combined. Add the pine nuts and mix on low until evenly distributed. Scoop heaping tablespoons of the dough into balls, then roll in the remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets, then bake for 10-12 minutes, until the cookies have spread and the edges are just beginning to turn golden brown. Let cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!

 

Spinach Pesto with Rigatoni


Pesto is a great thing to have on hand for quick, yet delicious meals. In the time that it takes to boil a box of pasta, I can quickly puree all of the ingredients together and produce a potent mixture that gives off aromas of pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil when tossed with hot pasta. A good pesto always tastes fresh and vibrant, and this one is no exception. Though this pesto does not use the fresh basil that is traditionally used in Liguria, the baby spinach makes for an excellent substitute in the winter months, when basil is either scarce or not at its best. Spinach, unlike basil, does not oxidize readily, so a batch of this pesto will stay bright green even after being exposed to air.

Pesto is composed of many strong flavors such as pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil, and the key to keeping the flavors in balance is to toast the pine nuts and garlic before pureeing them. This step smooths out any harshness from the raw garlic and releases the oils from the pine nuts to give a necessary depth to the finished pesto. After toasting the pine nuts and garlic, they get pureed with a generous amount of baby spinach, olive oil, and good parmesan cheese until a thick emulsion is created. A touch of pasta water gives some body to the tossed pasta, and a shower of parmesan cheese ties the whole dish together. In addition to being a fast meal to make, this is a meal best devoured in mere minutes until all that is left on the plate are a few flecks of spinach.

I find that short, tubular pasta shapes work best with pesto, as the consistency of the pesto clings nicely to shapes such as rigatoni, penne, orecchiette, and cavatappi, as well as other varieties with ridged exteriors. Try this pesto next time you’re at a loss for what to make for dinner, and add some brightness to your winter evenings.

Additional uses for pesto:

  • Use as a condiment in grilled panini.
  • Swirl a spoonful into a bowl of vegetable soup.
  • Stuff a dollop into some dough and make a few pesto-stuffed flatbreads.
  • Place pesto in a bowl with extra olive oil and use it as a dipping sauce for bread.
  • Puree with white beans, olive oil, and seasonings to make a unique bean dip.
  • Use pesto instead of tomato sauce with pizza and top with goat cheese, mushrooms, and fresh herbs.


Spinach Pesto with Rigatoni

Serves 4

¼ cup raw pine nuts

2 garlic cloves, peel still on the clove

5 oz baby spinach

1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for the pasta pot

¼ cup olive oil

1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

1 lb dry rigatoni

  1. Place the pine nuts and garlic cloves in a small skillet over medium heat, and toast until the pine nuts are golden brown and fragrant, 4-5 minutes. Remove from the pan, peel the garlic, and set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor or high-speed blender, combine the pine nuts, peeled garlic, spinach, and salt. Process until thoroughly pureed, about 1 minute. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to achieve an emulsified pesto. Transfer the pesto to a large bowl (large enough to accommodate the cooked pasta) and stir in the grated parmesan.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, then add 1 tablespoon sea salt. Add the rigatoni and cook until al dente. Drain the rigatoni, reserving 1 cup of pasta cooking water. Toss the pasta with the pesto and ¼ cup of the cooking water, adding more pasta water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Serve immediately, with more parmesan cheese grated on top.

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Butternut Squash Gnocchi

A plate of hot, fresh gnocchi with a simple brown butter and sage sauce is one of my very favorite meals. Homemade gnocchi is a commitment, but when you take quality ingredients and prepare them carefully, the resulting meal is easily worth the hour of sticky, flour covered hands. Gnocchi are most commonly made with potatoes, but they can be made with a variety of ingredients so long as they have a dumpling shape. I’ve made gnocchi with potatoes, sweet potatoes, semolina flour, and most recently, butternut squash.

All it takes a few pounds of oven-roasted butternut squash that’s mashed, cooked down, and kneaded with some flour and an egg. The dough is rolled into ropes, cut into little gnocchi, and flicked off the back of a fork to make a few ridges to catch the sauce.

The gnocchi are gently boiled until they pop up to the surface of the water, which happens at almost two minutes on the dot. While the gnocchi boil, I always brown some butter with sage leaves, minced shallot, and lemon juice, then toss the cooked gnocchi in the brown butter sauce. With a final dusting of parmesan cheese, you can have a fancy restaurant meal in the comforts of your own home. It’s a bit of a culinary challenge, but I hope you try it and see just how delicious and satisfying the tender mouthfuls of butternut squash are on a fall night.

(The first two photos in this post are courtesy of the talented videographer, Samir Ghosh, who filmed me making this recipe.)

Butternut Squash Gnocchi

Serves 4-6

Gnocchi:

2 ½ pounds butternut squash, (about ½ of a large squash), halved and seeded

1 teaspoon olive oil

Kosher or sea salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed

Sauce

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 dozen sage leaves, 4 sliced into ribbons and the remaining 8 left whole

1 shallot, minced

¼ teaspoon salt

Juice of ½ lemon

Freshly grated parmesan cheese, for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 450F and place the butternut squash on a rimmed baking sheet. Rub it with the olive oil, then sprinkle with the salt. Roast in the preheated oven for 55-65 minutes, until fork-tender.
  2. Remove the squash from the oven and scoop the flesh into the bowl of a food processor. Process for 1-2 minutes, until a smooth puree forms.
  3. Transfer the squash to a non-stick skillet and cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, to remove some of the excess moisture, then transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
  4. While the squash cooks down, prepare the sauce: In a small skillet over medium heat, add the butter. Once the butter has melted, add the sage (the ribbons and the whole leaves), shallot, and salt. Let the shallots caramelize and the butter brown for 2-3 minutes, then take the pan off heat and stir in the lemon juice. Remove the whole squash leaves, reserving them for a garnish if desired. At this point, begin heating a large pot of water to boiling to cook the gnocchi.
  5. Add 2 cups of the flour and the egg to the bowl with the squash. Stir with a spatula to combine. Dust a work surface with the ½ cup remaining flour and turn the dough out onto it. With well-floured hands, lightly knead the dough until a cohesive mass forms. Divide the gnocchi dough into 4 equal portions, and roll each portion into a long rope, about ¾ inch in diameter, taking care to keep the work surface well-floured. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut the rope into ½-1 inch pieces to form the gnocchi. To achieve the ridges, turn a fork over and using your index finger, gently roll the gnocchi, one at a time, down the length of the fork so that they curl slightly and have a ridged portion. Place the finished gnocchi on a floured plate.
  6. Once the water is boiling, add 1 tablespoon of salt to the water and ½ of the formed gnocchi. Boil the gnocchi gently until they rise to the surface, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or spider, drain the gnocchi and place them in a serving bowl. Cook the remaining gnocchi, then toss all of the gnocchi with the prepared sauce, taking care not to mash the delicate gnocchi. To serve, place on individual plates and top with the reserved sage leaves, if desired, and freshly grated parmesan cheese, then serve immediately.

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Campanelle con Cavolfiore e Mollica di Pane (Campanelle with Cauliflower and Bread Crumbs)


Does anyone else love zoning out with a few PBS shows? It’s so relaxing to lie on the couch and listen to the late Bob Green (The Painter Guy) wax poetic about how to create a forest of trees or watch the sharply bow-tied Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen describe how egg proteins coagulate with heat. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a Downton Abbey marathon will be on, but if I’m unlucky, the only thing on will be a Norwegian cooking show shot in the dead of winter with all the cooking done over an open fire pit. However, the real jackpot is when Lidia Bastianich is on air.

I think of Lidia as the Italian grandmother version of Martha Stewart: she has done lots of work running restaurants, writing cookbooks, and establishing Eataly in New York. Beyond that, she does an excellent job of showing her viewers how to make simple and delicious Italian meals. Each of her episodes focuses on one particular region of Italy, which to me is fascinating, because the culinary traditions of Italy vary widely and originate from the geography and culture of the various regions. I’ve made many of her recipes, from tiella to torta al testo (a type of filled focaccia). Yet my favorite recipe from Lidia remains this cauliflower pasta from Molise.

Many of Lidia’s dishes utilize the technique of cucina povera, which roughly translated means “peasant cooking.” Cucina povera often involves using leftover or inexpensive ingredients to create frugal, yet delicious meals. Most of the time, this means finding inventive ways to use day-old bread, and Italians are experts at this, from their panzanellas, crostini, and pasta dishes such as this one. Lidia’s cauliflower pasta is traditionally made with cavatelli (a small, fresh pasta made from curling squares of fresh pasta dough), tender cauliflower florets, and breadcrumbs full of garlic, almonds, and extra-virgin olive oil. For a simpler weeknight version, I use campanelle, which is a frilly dried pasta that traps the breadcrumbs in its bell shaped opening.

The breadcrumbs add a wonderful textural contrast to the al dente pasta and cauliflower, and stay trapped in the curvatures of both. We’ve served this for dinner dozens of times, and I get excited whenever we have left-over bread because I know that this dish may be in the near future.

The sauce is very simple, almost non-existent by some standards, but relies on fruity olive oil, plenty of garlic, and a touch of red pepper flakes. The seasoning must be aggressive, in order to enhance the flavor of the cauliflower. I’m always amazed at the complexity of flavors and textures in this meal, especially considering that it comes together in about half an hour and relies on relatively simple ingredients. It’s a superb weeknight meal that I hope will become part of your weekly rotation.


Campanelle con Cavolfiore e Mollica di Pane (Campanelle with Cauliflower and Bread Crumbs)

Adapted from Lidia Bastianich

Serves 4 to 6

4 oz. day-old bread (for reference, this is about ½ of a baguette)

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon table salt, divided

¼ cup blanched slivered almonds

1 lb. campanelle pasta

1 head cauliflower (2-3 lbs.), cut into bite size florets

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

  1. Rip the bread into 2 inch chunks and place them in the bowl of a food processor. If, like me, you hate cleaning the food processor, place a sheet of parchment between the bowl and the lid before closing. This allows you to avoid washing the lid. Pulse the bread for about 1 minute until it forms large bread crumbs. Set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400F and heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté gently until golden brown, then add the almonds, breadcrumbs, and ½ teaspoon salt. Toss to combine, then place the skillet in the oven until the bread crumbs are golden brown and very crisp, 10-12 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil, and once boiling, add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the campanelle and boil until al dente. When there are 6 minutes left in the cooking time for the pasta, add the cauliflower florets and continue to boil until the pasta is done. Drain the pot and transfer the pasta and cauliflower to a large serving bowl.
  4. Add the bread crumbs, parsley, ½ teaspoon salt, and remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil to the pasta. Toss to combine, adjust seasonings to taste, and serve immediately.

Click here for a printable version of this recipe!