Friday, October 21, 2011

Lemony Roasted Broccoli with Toasted Pine Nuts, Fresh Basil, Red Onions, and Parmesan Cheese

Growing up I would say I liked vegetables just about as much as the next kid. And, like most, had several on a short list of ones that I would have done just about anything to avoid eating. Though I have openly admitted my youthful disdain for brussel sprouts, I'd say that broccoli was a very close second.

As I recall, this particular veggie came sealed in a plastic bag and was pulled from the vast depths of a freezer that was often in dire need of a good defrosting. Given the fact that microwaves were all the rage at the time, our veggie side could magically transform from a colorful block of ice to a dinnertime side dish in just a few short minutes. Popped into a dish, slapped with a pat of butter and a few shakes of salt and pepper and we were good to go... all components of the food pyramid rightly accounted for.

It wasn't until much later that I realized just how much better fresh broccoli tasted and, just as important, that I liked my veggies to retain a whole lot more of their original character than a zap in a micro or a long soak in a hot bath or steam could possibly produce. And, surprisingly, time didn't have to be compromised. After a quick blanching... two to three minutes tops... these brilliantly green florets can be drained, dressed, and delivered in a dash of time.

And, then, as if it couldn't get any easier or better, I discovered roasting...

Cauliflower florets drizzled with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, pepper and parmesan cheese... crazy good. Parsnips... red onions... sweet potatoes... tomatoes... you name it... awesome. There is just something magical that happens to veggies when they are roasted and so little is required to achieve success: a good dicing, a little olive oil, some seasoning, and voilá. Pungent flavors, bitter notes, strong odors... whatever the malady... roasting just seems to mellow, sweeten and beautifully transform veggies into a better form of themselves.

While it doesn't take much to make roasted veggies pop, I was particularly taken by this little recipe from Ina Garten. I've only slightly tweaked it -- as I made it the first time out from just what I could recall her doing. It's just a basic little roast but it's got this genius bit of topping that you mix into your veggies once they've come out of the oven.

Super good, super easy... a little bit more dressed up... and definitely tasty enough for even the most critical of critics.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Simplest Lentil Soup

This soup has been in our family for nearly 25 years, give or take a few, and happens to be one of "our" favorites. Given that it's basically legumes and water it may seem like a bit of a stretch to offer it up as a bona fide "recipe." However, because it is so representative of just how good something so incredibly simple can be, it deserves a nod.

We distinguish this lentil soup from others I make by simply referring to it as "lentejas," which I suppose is apropos given that this is basically a meal of lentils. Unlike another favorite lentil soup I make that is far more hearty and rich in flavor, this soup is especially unassuming in its simplicity. Though I make it throughout the fall and winter, I'd say it is particularly nice as a transitional soup; one that welcomes you into fall and the onset of cooler temps and crimson leaves... with a gentle nudge.

Having said all that I have to confess that I mentioned this soup to our eldest... as part of our usual check-in on how the day went/what's for dinner routine... and she said it wasn't her favorite. Huh? Not a favorite? That's okay. I'm not sure I can say that everything I enjoy eating is my "favorite" but I still wouldn't toss them aside with nary a second look. So... while respecting her opinion (she loves the aforementioned soup), I'm posting it anyway as a mother's prerogative. It's super fresh, nutrient-rich, easy to make, and just about as cost effective a meal you can imagine... so it's a great option to have in your repertoire.

It features brown lentils, which are a bit firmer than their lentil brethren so they hold up nicely as the key player here, retaining their shape and substance. These lentils have a uniquely subtle, mild earthy flavor. I happen to love them, which I have to admit is somewhat critical to appreciating this soup. The simplicity of flavor offered by the brown lentil contrasts nicely with the more gently robust, herb-y and acidic notes of the onion, garlic, cilantro, and tomatoes that make up the balance of the stock. A bay leaf tucked into the soup as it simmers, along with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper is all that is needed to make this less-than-glamorous but highly nutritious legume really shine.

Given the protein-packed richness of the brown lentil, this soup is a great option as a meatless, vegan-friendly meal. We, however, often pair our bowls of soup with some warmed tortillas dotted with fresh cotija cheese. You can also tuck in a few sprigs of fresh cilantro if you like. All in all, it's a super simple, fresh, and satisfying cooler-weather kind of soup/nudge (...nudge).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bucatini with Fresh Broccolini, Tomatoes, Turkey Bacon... and a Poached Egg

Who knew what an egg could do?

I'll preface this query with the disclaimer that I'm infinitely aware that there are far more important questions to pose and discoveries to be made. However, this egg on this pasta is a nice little place to start before venturing on to greater pastures.

I'm not really a poached egg sort of girl. I do like eggs in moderation, but prefer an over-easy egg to a poached. The egg white is a bit firmer and then, of course, there's the added benefit a bit of butter infuses. Served on a slice of toasted fresh grain bread, then topped with a good sprinkle of salt and pepper and that runny yolk does great things. Throw eggs together to make a frittada, or whip them up into a scramble with some onions, peppers and such... yum. But poached? Not so much.

I know a lot of people that love Eggs Benedict and scout out all the great brunch locales that deliver on this particular culinary treat. I am not one. I'll have the Huevos Rancheros instead, thank you.

Then we took a trip to the Napa Valley wine country recently which included visits to several of the great restaurants that area has to offer. On one particular night out we asked for a "go to" suggestion for our primo piatto and a version of what has become this little pasta was recommended. Throwing caution to the wind, we ordered it... poached egg and all.

While topping pasta with a poached egg is not new, I had never tried it and was completely unprepared for the absolute party it brought to not only the flavor of the dish but to the consistency. It beautifully enriches and enhances the sauce, melding perfectly with the tomato- and parmesan-flavored base that would certainly be great on its own but is much more interesting and inviting with the addition of that little egg. Once the poached egg melds into this dish you really don't know it ever existed. And that's the beauty of it. While it diffuses into the background, its presence is absolutely paramount to the flavor and richness of the pasta. It's also much more fun from a presentation perspective than, say, incorporating a couple of egg yolks directly into the sauce would be.

Though our Napa version of this pasta had guanciale in it, we didn't realize this until after we delved in. Guanciale is kind of the "king of bacon," noted for its leaner quality and rich flavor. It wasn't overly present in the dish we had but I knew that it provided a layer of flavor that really shouldn't be overlooked. The issue is that we don't really eat meat. I do, however, have a thing for turkey bacon. I use it in various dishes and just kind of figure it's an occasional splurge in our mostly vegetarian-pescatarian leaning that works for us. While real meat lovers may want to go with guanciale, I felt that the turkey bacon provided enough of the same flavor profile to keep us happy.

Also, our Napa version incorporated a parmesan brono (or broth). I simply popped a good chunk of parmesan rind down into the tomato base and let it simmer away, breaking down and releasing its great salty-cheesey bite. Some pasta water and a good little pop of black pepper also helps to get things sauced up and flavored right. Once plated, add a sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan cheese, if you like, and lay that little poached egg on top. It makes a great presentation. Each person can then crack open their own egg and let it run through their pasta, making sure it gets fully incorporated. Like magic, that little poached morsel virtually vanishes. Only you...and the egg...will ever truly know it was there.