With the first week of January down, I am happy to report that I’ve kept up with my resolution so far (yeah, yeah, so it’s only been one week…). This past week we enjoyed our first in the series of Mark Bittman’s Thanksgiving sides. Here is his suggestion:
“65. Sauté garlic and pine nuts in olive oil until the garlic softens; add trimmed, blanched, chopped broccoli rabe (or broccoli). Put into a buttered baking dish, top with Parmesan and bread crumbs and bake until the topping browns.”
As you can see, he gives lots of room for adjustments and personal preference: this is not a recipe, this is a collection of ingredients that dance together well, and what rhythms you might coax them into. I did the following, in these approximated proportions:
¼ cup pine nuts
2 TB olive oil
2 bunches broccolini (splitting the broccoli / broccoli rabe difference)
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1 TB butter
2 TB Parmesan cheese
I heated the olive oil over medium heat and sauteed away. Though I can see the need to blanch both broccoli and broccoli rabe before letting it color in the pan with the pine nuts and garlic, my broccolini was a touch on the soft side by the time it came out of the oven, so it probably didn’t need the 3-4 minutes I gave it in boiling water. Even when I bake them, I like my veggies to maintain a little crispness, and this had almost none.
While the broccolini absorbed the garlicky nutty olive oil in the skillet, I mooshed together my panko, butter, and Parmesan into little crackery clumps. After spraying a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray and dumping in the vegetable mix, I topped it with the panko crumbles and stuck it in the oven at 350F for half an hour. The panko got a little brown, but not quite the golden color I was hoping for. My thoughts for repairing this are two: 1.) either the oven temperature needed to be hotter, or 2.) I needed more butter in the topping mixture.
This was a good start – aside from the slightly limp broccolini, the flavors were nice and sharp and salivary-gland-inducing. Garlic and Parmesan are never a bad thing together, and the toasty buttery crunch of the pine nuts went well with the slightly bitter greenness of the broccolini. We did think, however, that the mix was a little on the dry side. I was expecting something casserole-ish, and what I got could just as easily have been tossed on a cookie sheet and served: more like roasted vegetables than a finished casserole dish. It needed, if it was to become a casserole, some kind of sauce or binding ingredient.
I had some butternut squash ravioli filling kicking around in my freezer, and part of a can of pumpkin in the fridge. That, along with the half cup or so of gorgonzola in my cheese drawer and the remaining glugs of half and half from a richer project, became a use-all-this-stuff-up-as-soon-as-possible challenge. I cooked off some large pasta shells, leaving them a little underdone, and arranged them in a pie plate. Then I added the pumpkin to the squash mixture, loaded into a gallon ziploc bag with one corner snipped off, and piped the filling into my shells. I dusted them with a snowy layer of Parmesan cheese and loaded them into the oven with my broccolini.
While pasta and veg baked for half an hour, I set my attention to the sauce I was about to make up. I fried some sage leaves in butter, my new favorite trick, and then lifted them out and set them to dry on a paper towel. With the sage-infused butter bubbling, I added some wine and let it reduce a little. Then I glugged in some half and half, which promptly separated a little – I think it was the acidity of the wine and the refrigerator cold temperature of the dairy, which made it want to curdle. I should have added the half and half first and the wine second. I was a little worried about this separation, but it only affected the appearance of the sauce, and not the taste or texture. Onward! I crumbled my gorgonzola into the pan and stirred gently until it melted. That was it. No thickening agents – the cheese did that job for me – no extra spices or herbs or aromatics, just butter, wine, cream, and cheese.
When the shells were done, with just little golden tips on the exposed edges of pasta, I poured the silky rich blue-veined sauce right over top of them. Then I crumbled my fried sage over the drenched shells, and sprinkled the whole thing with some pulverized gingersnap cookies. A touch of fancy, if you will.
The shells were divine. Not much texture, besides the cookie crumbles, but really, don’t you want just velvet and richness in a stuffed shell? The cheese sauce was the missing link the broccolini needed. It was tangy and rich and silken and perfect, and I ended up letting it trickle across my plate to meld with the vegetables and gently perfect them. Next time, we may add a little cheese sauce before baking the broccolini, and see how that turns out. I imagine the perfect, decadent accompaniment to baked potatoes…
N. has already picked out which dish we will be trying next week, so stay tuned!