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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.

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook: More party food

roasted eggplant spread, parmesan croutons
Roasted eggplant spread

It was probably not my smartest move to kick off the project by making nine recipes from five cookbooks in two days. But I was hosting a party and thought it would be good to try out a range of appetizers and nibbles, particularly since we don’t have enough room for a sit-down dinner for the number of people I invited.

I was looking for things I could cook ahead and serve without warming up, since our apartment gets RedPeppersvery warm in the summer and I didn’t want to add to it with a freshly heated oven. I had a feeling The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook would have good options; the Long Island shop closed before I moved to this part of the country but the book’s pictures suggest food you could bring home in cartons, turn into a pretty china dish, and offer to your weekend houseguests with wine and cheese. The eggplant spread looked like it would be as delicious at room temperature as it was when warm.

The recipe was very easy to prepare. You peel and dice an eggplant, dice red bell pepper and red onion, and mince some garlic. peeling eggplant to roastToss these with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes. When the chunks have cooled a bit, throw them into a food processor with a bit of tomato paste and pulse them until the consistency looks right: well blended but with some chunks.

I wanted to offer something interesting for dipping into the spread, and thought the parmesan croutons would fit the bill. Since they’re not cubes but individual slices of baguette, I took to calling them toasts instead of croutons, not that it really matters. Preparing these was easy too: slice a baguette diagonally into inch-thick slices, brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, top with freshly grated parmesan, and toast in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. EggplantMixtureI think next time I make them I’ll slice the bread a bit thinner, which will mean a shorter cooking time; an inch-thick slice of bread is a bit hefty to bite into even if you haven’t dipped it into eggplant spread or hummus.

Both the eggplant spread and the toasts tasted great. The guests polished off about half the eggplant spread during the evening. More of the toast was left; people were pairing the dips with plain untoasted baguette and veggies as well. I wasn’t terribly surprised that the spread went over well; I’ve cooked from this book before and enjoyed everything I’ve tried. Ina Garten’s recipes focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients, with just enough preparation to build flavor and texture without overcomplicating matters.EggplantMixtRoasted

Verdict: Success. Both recipes were easy and delicious.I may hold off on making them again until the fall, though, since I try to avoid using the oven during the hottest months. But I will make them again, and want to try other unfamiliar recipes from the book as well.ParmesanToasts