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March, 2011:

Cooking Light March 2011: Hearty Pasta for a Dreary Night

baked pasta with spinach, lemon, and cheese

PastaPlated2One of my goals with the blog as I finish up the cookbooks in my collection is to start catching up with the cooking magazines that I’ve been neglecting for nearly two years now. (Yikes, really? Really.) On Sunday I was getting ready to go out for brunch and run a few other errands, and realized that I wanted to try a new recipe for dinner but hadn’t picked anything out. I didn’t want WeighingPastato load a heavy cookbook into my bag, so I grabbed the most recent issue of Cooking Light and headed out the door.

Later, after a terrific brunch of eggs Benedict and mimosas, I began leafing through the magazine. One of the things I like about Cooking Light is that the recipes don’t usually rely too much on things like low-fat WeighingParmesancheese to keep the fat and calories down. This is good for me because I don’t think you can find low-fat cheese in my neighborhood. I despair of trying to explain the concept to our deli man. He would just laugh at me and tell me to eat more feta and olives. And you know what? He’d be right.

But anyway, the recipes in the AddingSpinachToPastamagazine use a number of tricks to keep foods light: baking instead of frying, using 1% milk instead of whole milk, using a smaller amount of a more flavorful cheese. For this recipe for baked pasta with spinach, lemon and cheese, one of the tricks is building flavor by browning onions as the base of the pasta sauce. It sounded like it would be hearty but not heavy, DrainingSpinachPasta2and I thought that might be nice for a gray, rainy evening.

I started by prepping my ingredients. Well, I didn’t have to prep the spinach: I bought a package of 5 ounces of baby spinach, exactly the amount called for, so I didn’t have to measure that. I did have to measure the pasta, though, since the recipe calls for 10 ounces and CookingOnions3I only had 16-ounce packages. But I have a scale, so I didn’t have to guess. I also used the scale for the parmesan (4 ounces from an 8-ounce wedge — and if I had just eyeballed it I would have gotten it wrong) and for the flour. I chopped onions, 4 cups’ worth, poured out the right amounts of milk and white wine for the sauce, and zested a lemon just enough to get 1/4 teaspoon of LemonZest2zest. While I prepped, rain lashed against the windows. I was particularly glad we weren’t going out, or expecting a delivery person to come out in the downpour.

Then I started cooking. I boiled the pasta for about 8 minutes until it was almost al dente, then pulled the pan off the heat, stirred in the baby spinach and let MakingSauce2it sit for 2 minutes, until the spinach wilted. Then I drained the pasta and spinach. In the meantime, I heated a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet and began to cook the onions, keeping them going until they were nice and brown. Then I added some flour and garlic powder (the recipe actually called for garlic, but I didn’t have any, which may be unprecedented in my household), MakingSauce3then added milk and a bit of white wine and let the sauce cook and thicken. I stirred in some of the parmesan, some salt and pepper, and the lemon zest. Then I poured the pasta and spinach into a baking pan, poured on the sauce, and mixed it all up.

Now it was time to top the dish: I sprinkled on a layer of panko (Japanese bread crumbs), topped SaucePastaSpinachthat with the rest of the parmesan, and then added another layer of panko. I think the trick here was to let the cheese add a minimal amount of fat to make the crumb topping just the right texture, without butter. I baked the pasta at 350 for 50 minutes, which gave me time to wash dishes, play along with a recorded game of “Jeopardy,” and catch up on my AddingParmesan2Scrabble games on Facebook. (I have 8 going. What?)

The crumb topping gave a nice, crispy texture to contrast with the creaminess of the sauce and noodles. I have to admit, I’ve never bothered with a crumb topping for baked macaroni and cheese, but I see the light now. It’s part of that play of contrast and texture that helps elevate a ServedOutFromPan3dish from good to great. This dish was terrific; the tang of the parmesan and lemon balanced nicely with the smoothness of the milk and the savory richness of the long-cooked onions. The spinach made it feel virtuous and added a nice resistant texture as well.

Verdict: Success. I’d make this one again.

Off-Book Post: Chicken Soup, Breadsticks and Cookies

chicken soup with stars, garlic breadsticks, chocolate chip cookies

SoupSimmeredI’ve had a pretty hectic few weeks. Months. I lose track. Work has been reasonably busy, plus I’m volunteering, I’m writing, I’m trying to get any number of other things done. And I have been slacking off on the blog. Last Sunday on Oscar night, I knew I wasn’t going to get through any blog recipes, but I did want to cook. So I turned to some of the SticksBakeddishes I can make without using a recipe.

I started with dessert, chocolate chip cookies. I do this one by ear now, loosely basing it on the recipe from the bag. Having it memorized is handy when you buy a bag that doesn’t have a recipe printed on it. Blend flour with salt and baking soda, cream butter with sugars and add eggs ChocolateChipCookies4and vanilla, mix it all together, stir in chips, scoop and bake. I think this was the first batch of standard chocolate chip cookies that I’ve made with the Kitchen Aid. It saves quite a bit of work. I didn’t think to take pictures before baking, but then there’s probably nothing that new to show about chocolate chip cookies.

LilPotatoesOnce the last of the cookies were in the oven, I washed the mixer bowl and started a simple pizza dough for breadsticks, throwing in a bit of basil and oregano to liven it up. I let the dough rise for an hour, shaped it into twelve sticks, let those rise for about half an hour, then brushed them with garlic butter and baked them for 15 minutes.

ParsleyOnce the breadstick dough was rising I began chopping vegetables for soup, then chopped up some chicken breast, and then began to cook. I sauteed onions in olive oil, added the chicken chunks and browned them, and then began adding items in turn. I follow a sort of loose order, starting with things that either will benefit from close-to-the-pan sauteeing SoupInProcess(like mushrooms) or need longer cooking (like potato chunks), and adding things until the pot is basically full of vegetables steaming in their own vapors. Finally I add broth, bring it all to a boil, and let it simmer until I’m ready to add the pasta. It’s never quite the same soup twice, but it’s always good.

I wasn’t trying to make a AddingSpicescomplicated meal; I was going for simple, really. Hearty and basic. Comfort food. It still took a fair bit of effort: chopping vegetables, stirring, cooking, and washing dish after dish after dish. I will never have a dishwasher in this apartment; the lease and the building structure ensure that. But some day…

I swear I really did not think SoupBowlsabout the fact that chicken soup with stars would be appropriate for Oscar night until I was ladling it into bowls. Everything was great, and it was nice to be cooking.