107 Cookbooks Rotating Header Image

Cooking Light

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.

Cooking Light: What’s for Dinner: Fast and Easy Supper

taco burgers

AssembledBurgersCooking Light: What’s For Dinner is a bit of a stretch to define as a cookbook; it’s a special extra issue of Cooking Light magazine with fast, easy and light dinner recipes. These seem like they would be good for busy weeknight cooking. I’m not sure where I got the magazine, but it’s dated 2004 so I probably bought it at the upscale supermarket that we lived above for one year (one glorious year) in Portland. And it’s possible that I didn’t use it at the time because another great way to manage fast weeknight suppers there was to pick up something at the sandwich counter, the hot deli or the sushi bar on the way upstairs.

BeefBeansSeasoning2I now don’t even live in the same neighborhood as an upscale supermarket, let alone upstairs from one. And while that’s probably saving me a great deal of money in Ben & Jerry’s expenses, it means I have to do a little more planning to ensure I can pull together a fast dinner. A lot of these recipes seem like they’d be good for that.

I decided to make taco burgers because the recipe happened to catch my eye as I was flipping through. That’s it: no symbolic value, no seasonal resonance, no potential joke, just “hey, that sounds good, let’s do that.”

BeefBeanPattiesTaco burgers are pretty simple. I blended about three-quarters of a pound of lean ground beef (the recipe calls for ground round) with half a cup of canned black beans that had been drained and rinsed, plus one and a half tablespoons of taco seasoning. The recipe calls for reduced-sodium taco seasoning, but I live in near-in Queens. New York City doesn’t have room for mega-supermarkets like Fred Meyer that carry tons of products and tons of selection in every area. New York has little supermarkets that have one or two brands for any given product. My neighborhood in particular is not affluent enough for a big market like a Fairway, let alone a Whole Foods; it also has a lot of Mexican and Central American residents, and this means that the demand for prepared taco seasoning is pretty low. Why use the prefab stuff when you can make something far better with fresh spices and your own know-how, especially if you’re highly unlikely to make something as Americanized as hard-shell tacos? Tacos in this neighborhood come from trucks at the curb, not from cardboard boxes. So my choices for taco seasoning were sodium-rich and not-quite-so-sodium-rich; I chose the latter.

PattiesCookingI mixed the beef, beans and seasoning together with my hands and shaped burger patties, then pan-cooked them. While they cooked I prepared the buns: whole wheat (the recipe called for reduced-calorie, but I didn’t find that either), plus tomato slices (findable) and salsa (pretty good options, as it turns out). The recipe also calls for shredded lettuce, but I wouldn’t bother with that if I were making tacos or other sandwiches, so I didn’t here. I thought briefly of using lettuce leaves — so much less annoying than the shreds — but I didn’t have room in the fridge for the salad bowl and I knew that if I let the head of lettuce sit unused for more than a day I would forget it until my next big fridge purge, and it would be unpleasant.

PattiesTurnedWhen the burgers were nearly done I topped them with slices of cheddar and let them cook briefly, covered, so the cheese could start to melt. Again, the recipe called for reduced-fat cheddar; not to sound like a broken record or anything, but not something easy to find in my neighborhood. I have to note that this is a city where “light” cooking options are going to be a lot more successful if they call for fresh and natural ingredients than if they call for reduced-calorie or reduced-fat versions of prepared ingredients. And frankly, that’s how I’d prefer to do it anyway. So many “light” processed products really taste like they’re something less than the real thing; I’d rather go for high quality and moderation than one-for-one substitution.

AssembledBurgers2Plating was simple: I put the patties on the buns, added the tomato and salsa, took a few photos, and put the tops on the buns. I served them with tortilla chips from a fairly new Mexican grocery store nearby that’s run by people who used to work at one of our favorite diners. They don’t have reduced-calorie anything in that shop. Anyway, the burgers were tasty; the beans were a good complement to the meat and the seasoning was in the right proportion, which is good to know since I have about two-thirds of a packet left.

Verdict: Success. Fast and easy, and who knows? Maybe some day I’ll come across the light ingredients, though until then I can just use less cheese. And make room for the lettuce. But it was a nice easy dinner, which was a good thing, because I had quite enough to do already making cookie dough. My next three posts will be about holiday baking, and the Great Caramel Spill. Stay tuned.