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pennoni dressed with cold-pressed olive oil, parmigiano reggiano, and traditional gremolata

pennoni dressed with cold-pressed olive oil, parmigiano reggiano, and traditional gremolata

Boiling yourself some pasta on a weeknight is hardly a new idea, and certainly not some gourmet shit. However, its also one of those go-to meal ideas that can easily be brought up from depressing to delicious with a few simple steps. Good pasta, with a few adornments, doesn’t always need sauce (delicious though some tomato sauces may be).
 

WORTH IT:

  • Cold-pressed olive oil, which preserves the fruity and grassy flavors of the olives. Used for dipping, dressings, and finishing, never for frying chicken breasts.
  • Real parmigiano reggiano, not the shit in a green can, and not the cheap store-brand imitation. Look for the dimpled, capitalized lettering on the rind that spells out “parmigiano reggiano.” The flavor is nutty, creamy, salty, and slightly sharp. Eat it on your pasta. Eat it on some bread. Eat it with cured meats. Eat it with a fork.
  • Imported dried pasta or freshly-made noodles may seem unreasonably expensive compared to a box of Barilla, but when your goal is to appreciate the subtle nuances of wholesome, traditional ingredients, the same goes for your pasta as well.

But remember: sometimes there’s just no replacing Annie’s mac and cheese. Or Kraft, I guess, if you’re a total sucker.

~~~~~

Gremolata is designed specifically to be added to a dish right before eating, often times to liven the flavor of long-cooking roasts of meat. However, the bright, pungent, acidic hit is fantastic over pasta. The traditional recipe goes as follows:

  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • Handful of parsley (flat-leaf, if possible), minced
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Squeeze of juice from lemon, just to bring the mixture together

Simply mix and sprinkle over whatever needs a punch of flavor. In addition to pasta, try it over bread with some of that wonderful cheese and cured meat, or on some roasted vegetables after they’ve come out of the oven. The basic formula of aromatic (garlic, or even onion) + herb (parsley) + citrus  (lemon, zest and juice) is incredibly flexible. Here’s my short list (which I’ve tried and love):

  • garlic + thyme + lemon + orange on roasted chicken (especially good with some dark meat and a piece of crispy skin)
  • garlic + red onion + cilantro + lime on avocado slices with toasted bread
  • garlic + onion + parsley + lemon on ripe tomato slices = deconstructed bruschetta (also good on bread)

I’m bound to get all weird with this concept, so I’m sure I’ll have more ideas sometime soon. Something Asian, perhaps? That sounds like it could be promising…

– Max.

A few weeks ago, I waxed romantic about my love for fresh summer tomatoes. Now that August is in full swing, however, those juicy fruits are everywhere. This post is the first in an ongoing series in which I will do my very best to take advantage of the 2011 tomato crop through my favorite application: sauce. Now, I’m not here to offend anyone of Mediterranean descent or take on your grandmother in a cook-off showdown, but I love me some sauce and after cooking pot after pot after pot, I’m not afraid to put my best efforts out there.

For my first attempt, I used my favorite cooking method: roasting. A slow roast both deepens / concentrates the flavor and enhances the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and the accompanying aromatics (onion, bell pepper, and garlic). Admittedly, human error (i.e. going out to shop instead of staying at home to watch the tomatoes) allowed the roasting to continue for a bit longer than I would have normally liked, but the end result gave a sauce that had an extra-deep caramelized flavor and just a touch of dark smokiness (and indeed, a dark color) thanks to a few pieces of charred onion.

I like pictures with lots of tomatoes. It's a thing.

All of the candidates for roasting, looking pretty on my kitchen table.

At home in Connecticut, I still spent my Saturday morning at the farmer’s market. Lucky for me, there was a man selling second-quality (i.e. cracked / ugly or slightly under-ripe) tomatoes at the rock-bottom price of $10 for a 25 pound box. And not only was he thrilled to sell me those fruits at 40 cents per pound, he even threw in a few purple and one green bell pepper, which also went into the sauce. Supporting local business + fresh local produce + cheap as fuck = all I do is win.

For the actual roasting, prep is easy. Halve the tomatoes, remove the stem (and any undesired parts, such as mold or under-ripe spots) and scoop out the seedy innards with your hand. Do not use a spoon. Spoons are for the weak and the unattractive. Dice the bell peppers and the onion, also removing the seeds from the peppers, and smash / mince some garlic. Load everything into a baking pan, layering the tomatoes on the bottom and the aromatics on top, and slide it all into a 275 degree oven. After a short time, enjoy the wonderful smells permeating your home.

They didn't believe me when I said "I'LL CUT YOU."

A kaleidoscope of ripeness.

The actual time for the roast depends on how much time you have and what you want out of the sauce. At the very least, let the tomatoes cook for 1.5 hours, which will allow the moisture to cook away and the all of the lovely flavors to concentrate. After that point, though, it’s up to you. I recommend letting everything darken, shrivel slightly, and caramelize / brown around the edges, which should be done within the next hour. Or, if you’re like me, and you get out of the house and leave your mother in charge, things will turn out a bit more well-done than you thought. However, a delicious sauce was still had with little effort.

I could've eaten it all right then. With just my face.

Post-roast, pre-blend. Look at all of that lovely color.

After everything is out of the oven, put the whole mess into a big pot and over low heat. Again, now you have choices. After already cooking for a few hours, all of the produce should give under the pressure of a wooden spoon and some stiff stirring and will yield a rustic and chunky sauce. This time, however, I wanted something smoother, so i added about a half-cup of water and mixed everything with my stick blender until it was more homogenous, but still had much texture. 

Your sauce is now a canvas for finishing. If you let everything roast for a long while, you’ll notice how the natural sugars were brought out and round out the acidity of the tomatoes without any need for added sweeteners. Wanting to bring out some of the alocohol-soluble flavors, I added about a quarter cup of vodka (eyeballed the pour, as I always do with hard liquor, nothing precise) and let the sauce stew for a few minutes. Then, in a stroke of inspiration, I threw in a bit of half and half, wanting to mimic the creaminess and rich flavor of traditional vodka sauces. This also served to brighten the rather dark sauce as well — remember, we eat with our eyes first. Some crushed red pepper and a fresh basil, oregano, and flat-leaf parsley (torn instead of chopped to prevent over-processing the herbs), and I am in a wonderful place. Wait, WHERE IS THE BREAD? Someone get me a loaf of crusty bread!

Your grandmother would be proud.

Blended and soused with booze and milk. Actually more delicious than it sounds.

Ingredients

  • 5 – 6 pounds of fresh tomatoes
  • 1 large onion
  • 1-2 bell peppers
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic (or more, if you like)
  • 1 tablespoon (or more) fresh basil, torn into small pieces
  • 2 teaspoons each fresh oregano and flat-leaf parsley, also torn into small pieces
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flake (at least)
  • 1/4 cup vodka
  • 1/2 cup half and half (substituting light or heavy cream is fine)
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • fresh black pepper
  • water as needed to thin sauce if using stick blender to achieve smooth texture

Procedure

  1. Wash and dry tomatoes and peppers.
  2. Halve tomatoes vertically (through the stem). Remove any blemishes, mold, etc.
  3. Cut out the stem and scoop out the seeds / tomato goo. Don’t worry if the inner membrane comes out too, it’s not as flavorful as the rest of the tomato. Plus, we’ve got a lot of them to get through.
  4. Dice onion and peppers and mince garlic cloves.
  5. Arrange tomatoes in baking pan, cut side up, and layer the aromatics on top.
  6. Drizzle liberally with olive oil and kosher salt.
  7. Roast in a 250 degree oven for at least 1.5 hours and up to 3 hours, making sure to keep an eye on the progress every 30 minutes or so (15 – 20 minutes closer to the end).
  8. Place tomatoes and aromatics in a large pot over low heat after the roast. Either stir vigorously to achieve a rustic and chunky texture or use a stick blender for a smoother texture. You can also do this in batches in a standard blender or food processor, but it’s a bit of a hassle working in batches.
  9. Add vodka and allow to cook for 5 minutes.
  10. Stir in dairy, season with salt and black pepper if desired.
  11. Finish with herbs and crushed red pepper.

    Yes, even at work, there is shaved pecorino.

    Toss with rigatoni and pecorino romano to make your co-workers jealous.

There will be more sauce to come. Summer is fleeting and the tomatoes, ephemeral jewels that they are, will be ere be gone before I have had my fill.

– Max.

So you’ve made a big, fat batch of hummus. Delicious and healthful to be sure. “But Max!” you shout, “I want MORE!” Potential adult film plotlines aside, throwing together a spread of complementary dishes is not hard at all and can be executed (with a minute of planning and a modicum of talent) all at the same time. Here, in abbreviated form, is what I made to go with my chickpeas:

Salad á la Streetmeat Cart (but mo betta)

Slice some red cabbage (I used radicchio) into strips so you have about 2 cups. Take about half of a red onion and slice as thin as possible. Dice a tomato and chop up a handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil, the juice from two lemons, kosher salt, and some fresh black pepper. Let this sit in the refrigerator (with the hummus, which should be cooling down as well if you just made some) while you prepare the remaining dishes.

Now you don't have to wonder what they stuff your falafel sandwich with.

Note the bright colors. Those are the vitamins. Vitamins taste good.

Toasted Pita Chips

Start with regular packaged pitas. They should be cheap and the ingredient list should be short. Cut each pita into quarters and split the two halves to make 8 large quarters for each pita. Place on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and toast in a 400 degree oven for about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with kosher salt. You will never fork over $3.99 for a 6oz bag of Stacy’s again.

flat bread = big taste

It's almost as easy as buying a bag of chips. And a quarter of the price. I'm serious. Just make them.

 Kabob Chicken, reconstructed (or not kabobbed)

Go out back and slaughter the fuck out of a chicken. Too old country? Nevermind. Start with either boneless and skinless breasts, or, if you want real flavor, boneless thighs (I only had breasts on hand at the time, so I went with those). Toss with (everyone say it with me) olive oil, kosher salt, and fresh black pepper. Next, sprinkle both sides with ground cumin and just a bit of dried oregano. You’ll be amazed how one spice and one herb can change the flavor profile of simple grilled chicken so dramatically. Cook over medium-high heat for 6-7 minutes per side.

Those are some nice looking breasts. Taste great, too!

Note: brown means flavor.

All three of these dishes can, if you’re not completely kitchen-incompetent, be prepared in about half an hour. That means if you make the salad first, by the time the chicken is cooked through and has had a minute to rest, you get to enjoy an entire meal.

It's like the Eastern Mediterranean in my mouth.

Almost as good as when you get it off of a cart. But much better for you.

 – Max.

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