One of the great things about the last house we lived in during our tenure in Eugene – the best house – the party house – was its location. Just over a mile from campus, it was also within walking distance of downtown (for the incredible produce and local craft market each weekend) and the fairgrounds.
The Lane County Fairgrounds played host to … well, let’s call it an interesting line-up of events. Among others, a gem and mineral show, a bridal show and wedding expo, a model train exhibit, and (I am not kidding) a wool festival. In the summers during the County Fair, we could smell the fried food and hear the cover bands from our backyard as the sun fell. Sometimes they were fun. But sometimes it was someone covering Huey Lewis and the News again. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the power of love. After all, it don’t take credit cards to ride that train, and far be it from me to critique the theme song from Back to the Future! But several nights in a row, even if it’s only once a year, is pushing it.
Despite its foibles, the fairgrounds also hosted an annual event that N. and I went to every single year. The Friends of the Library Book Sale happened in the spring, and with most books priced at 50 cents or $1, the season was important, because we ended up having to establish rules. A household with two English literature PhD students may lack many things, but what it does not lack are books. By our third year in the program, we already had at least four bookshelves jammed so full we were piling books atop each other and committing the shelving equivalent of double parking with some of the smaller paperbacks. Every shelf sagged in the middle from the weight. Cheap books were a danger zone.
We ended up instituting a rule that we had to walk to the book sale. This required us to get some exercise and celebrate the season, but more importantly, it meant we were limited in what we could add to the collection by our own biceps. If you can’t carry it home, you can’t have it. It helped. A little.
Facing a room full of tables full of books, with more books in boxes underneath, is a daunting task. After I’d perused the “literature and fiction” area and the “classics” table, I would routinely wander to the cookbooks section. Selections here were usually hardback, which meant I’d be able to carry fewer of them, and (surprise, surprise) usually a bit pricier than the twelve ratty copies of Heart of Darkness with torn covers gracing the literature area. But for people with limited willpower, these kinds of hard and fast prohibitions are a good thing. They mean you have to really want what you’re getting, and that leads to better purchases.
I acquired several good cookbooks via this method, including one containing the first yeast bread I ever made (and it was a success!). But by far, the star has been an old annual collection of Food and Wine Magazine recipes, and within that collection itself, the single page that receives the most attention contains a pasta dish by Mario Batali. It features goat cheese, hazelnuts, and red pepper flakes coaxed into a sauce to coat a pile of orchiette, those little domes of pasta named for their apparent resemblance to little ears (though to be honest they have always reminded me more of a lady’s cloche hat).
Batali’s recipe is delicious but basic. He blends the aforementioned ingredients with a smattering of chopped parsley, a glug or two of olive oil, and a healthy pour of starchy, steamy pasta water into a creamy sauce. After tossing the pasta in all this tangy, spicy, nutty glory, Batali adds a dusting of toasted bread crumbs for some needed crunch.
My version, though it maintains the procedure, plays to my own tendency for gluttony. Unsatisfied with just goat cheese, I add some shredded white cheddar for extra savory tang. N. is a fiend for bread crumbs, so I nearly triple the quantity called for in the original recipe. In an attempt to atone for these culinary sins, I also add a tremendous half pound of fresh baby spinach leaves, lightly wilted in the pasta water during the last minute of cooking. Further, it’s gluttonous in its allowances for laziness: the sauce, such as it is, is constructed in the serving bowl, the spinach cooks with the pasta, and though you do have to dirty up your food processor, you can process the bread crumbs and the hazelnuts in it one after the other with no need to do more than tamp it out a bit in between.
The finished dish is a mountain of pasta, caressed with sauce and threaded through with enough wilted spinach to eliminate the need for a side salad (though if you still want one, be my guest!). It’s a study in textures, with the orchiette themselves retaining a lovely chew, the spinach soft, the sauce silky but rumbling with pebbles of hazelnut resistance, and topped off with the perfect golden crunch of the toasty bread crumbs. Behind all this is the steady heat of the red pepper flakes, which I alternate quantities of – sometimes just enough to add a suggestion of spice, sometimes enough to clear the sinuses of the persistent fall allergies the LA basin is kind enough to grant me. Either way, it’s a dish that I forget about in between instances, but once I’ve tasted a fresh, steaming forkful, it becomes the only thing I want to eat ever again. Again.
Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts
adapted from Mario Batali
1-1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (whir 4-5 slices of sourdough in a food processor)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
6 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces extra sharp white cheddar, grated, at room temperature
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to your taste; this quantity produces a moderately spicy flavor)
1 pound orchiette, preferable, or another vaguely shell-shaped pasta
8 ounces fresh baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Once you’ve processed your bread into 1-1/2 cups of fine crumbs, spread them out on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven until golden, tossing and fluffing occasionally. Depending on the density and size of your crumbs, this will take 10-15 minutes. Once golden and crisp, remove from the oven and set aside.
- Use the same food processor, shaken free of bread crumbs, to grind the hazelnuts into a gravel with individual pieces about the size of coriander or mustard seeds (i.e. we want them small, but not quite ground into a paste).
- Heat well-salted water to boiling in a large pot and cook orchiette according to package directions.
- Meanwhile, put the goat cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil, parsley, and ground hazelnuts into a large serving bowl. Mash it about with a rubber spatula to combine into a thick, lovely, cheesy paste.
- In the last minute of the pasta’s cooking time, add the 8 ounces of baby spinach leaves and push them down into the boiling water with a wooden spoon.
- When the spinach is wilted but still bright green and the pasta is tender but still pleasantly chewy, drain both, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water.
- Add pasta and spinach to the serving bowl with the cheese and nut mixture. Begin to add the pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring, until a thick, sauce forms that coats the pasta evenly. This may not take the entire cup of water; thin the sauce just to your desired consistency.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper, then scatter on the breadcrumbs immediately before serving.
I don’t like restraint. It’s the same complaint I have about being a grown-up (also, restraint, complaint? They were clearly meant to go together!): the liberties are great, but the requirements to limit and be responsible for myself sometimes seem unfair. Ice cream for dinner because I want to? Yes I can! Work still starts at 7:45 on Monday morning? Oh. Right. Responsibility.
This tenuous relationship with restraint (and adulthood) contributes to the way I cook. Though what I try to bring here are dishes that I’ve tinkered with and scaled back or spruced up appropriately, that doesn’t reflect the me-in-the-kitchen reality most often produces. This “real” me is spattered with flour, knocking over bottled spices as she reaches for, most often, embarrassingly, the garlic powder (because honestly? Mincing up garlic on a weeknight after I’ve spent all day grading papers is sometimes beyond my capacities). I’m constantly in the line of fire of spurts of olive oil that spring out of my too-hot pan, and consistently grateful for the lovely canine I live with who willingly volunteers to “mop” the floor after dinner has been served. It’s a disaster zone, if I’m honest, which is why there are so rarely photos of me here to go along with the food.
And when it comes to the food, I must admit to occasionally overdoing it. I’ve made salads with so much in them it was hard to find the lettuce. My stir-fry sauce has probably a dozen ingredients. My pizza crusts don’t always crisp up because there are too many toppings crammed, well, atop them. Rarely is my final choice an unadorned one, but a basic that I’ve dressed up because I can’t help myself. Even in the words I use to tell you, I’m forever prattling on.
Sometimes, though, the minimalist in me steps in. She clears the counter with a glance. She demands simplicity, clarity, balance. She puts away the crumbled feta and the dried cherries and the dreams of fried sage. And she is usually right.
This simple Israeli couscous salad was born of a vision of combining raita and tabbouleh, though bizarrely with none of the most important ingredients for either. But that’s me. I’ve stripped away the parsley and the yogurt and the tomatoes and the bulgur wheat, and wound up with a collection of flavors and textures I’m totally in love with. And it’s so simple. Israeli couscous. Cucumber. Green onions. Mint. Pine nuts. Olive oil and lemon juice to dress. That’s it.
Israeli couscous, if you’ve never had it, is like a savory pile of tapioca balls, squashy and chewy and appealingly gummy. It makes a nice replacement for the bulgur wheat in tabbouleh, though it needs significantly less acid. Here, paired with the waterlogged freshness of cucumber and the creamy-crunch of pine nuts, it’s near perfect. And the mint. Guys, if you aren’t fans of mint in savory dishes, or if the last time you had it was as the leading flavor in that almost glowing green jelly spooned over a trembling haunch of lamb, you have to give it another chance. I already knew its herbal punch went well with cucumber, but I was surprised and delighted by how well it complements the pine nuts.
We ate this as a side dish for some tandoori-spiced grilled chicken and Bittman chutney one night, and then, in testament to its simple goodness, it conveniently acquiesced to be my lunch for several days in a row later that week.
You could, if you wish, add ¼ – ¼ cup halved cherry tomatoes, or shredded grilled chicken, or even a few tablespoons of yogurt for creaminess, and I think it would be stellar. But I, in an uncharacteristic display, decided not to. Restraint. For once. And I think I’m glad.
Israeli Couscous Salad
Serves 4-6 as a side dish, 2-3 as a main salad
1 cup Israeli couscous (sometimes also called pearl or pearled couscous)
1 ¼ cups water
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup sliced green onions, whites and green tops
1 cup seeded, diced cucumber
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
- Bring the 1 ¼ cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the couscous and cook over medium-high heat until the water has absorbed and the couscous pearls are like little tapioca balls. Don’t overdo it – you want a touch of resistance to remain. These are, after all, a form of pasta.
- When the couscous is done, drain any extra water that remains and toss with the lemon juice and the olive oil. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Let cool to room temperature.
- Add the pine nuts, cucumber, green onions, and mint to the room temperature couscous and serve immediately.
At about age fourteen, I stopped being able to eat much tomato sauce. There was something about the combination of sugar and acidity in processed pasta or pizza sauce that left my stomach roiling uncomfortably and my taste buds dissatisfied. This made some dinners difficult: pizza had to be dissected, scraped mostly dry, and put back together. Spaghetti with marinara and meatballs was a thing of the past. Lasagna was off the menu. In many ways this was a good thing, because it introduced me to novelties like pesto and alfredo and, when they became popular, white pizza and fresh pasta sauce. To this day, I’d rather have my pizza crust drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with fresh garlic than drenched in tomato sauce. I rarely miss it because the alternatives taste so much better.
But sometimes you just want the tang of tomato with your pasta. Since the processed option was out of bounds (and really, I don’t use many pre-prepared items like that anymore anyway), I decided I’d have to make my own. I’m not sure what it says about me that my entrée back into the pasta-with-red-sauce scene was spaghetti alla puttanesca, which translates charmingly to whore’s style spaghetti, but there it is. Olives, capers, obscene quantities of garlic, anchovy paste, red pepper flakes, all cooked down with diced tomatoes into a robust, aromatic sauce. It’s my favorite red sauce these days, and since all of the ingredients are basically pantry staples, I usually have the supplies to make this at a moment’s notice.
A number of stories make up puttanesca’s history. It is attributed to Naples, and though it was probably invented in the mid 20th century as a use-what-you-have kind of dish, its colorful name has spawned a variety of other origin stories. In one version, this briny, sharp, attention-getting sauce was cooked in brothels near the docks, and the smell was so strong that it attracted customers, who came looking for a bite to eat and left having paid for something more. By extension, the aroma of the sauce gave these sad customers away to their wives, who knew by the smell of the ingredients where their husbands had been. Some versions of the story twist this around, attributing its invention to these anxious wives, who hoped the savory aroma would lure their husbands back home.
Puttanesca is typically a topping for spaghetti, but here I used gemelli – the delightfully chewy, subtly DNA-shaped twirls – because I like how much closer in size they are to the other ingredients. The texture thrills me as well and, if we’re honest, it’s easier to avoid the dangerous splatter of tomato sauce on my favorite tank top when I’m dealing with, well, basically anything but long fickle strands of spaghetti. My version also includes red wine, which I use to deglaze the pan after lightly, lightly browning the garlic with the anchovy and capers, and some sundried tomatoes for a bit of extra tang. You can add whatever combination of dried herbs you like – basil and oregano are both delicious – although oregano is probably the most traditional.
2 tablespoons olive oil
6-8 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons anchovy paste, or 2-3 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons capers
¼ cup kalamata olives, roughly chopped if you like, or left whole
¼ cup sundried tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
½ cup dry red wine
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon dried basil or oregano
12 ounces dry pasta; we like gemelli, but spaghetti is more traditional for this sauce
Water and salt for the pasta
¼ cup chopped parsley
- Add olive oil and garlic to a cold pan. Turn the heat on to medium, and slowly warm the oil and garlic together. This will flavor the oil and cook the garlic gently, so it doesn’t burn or become bitter.
- When the garlic is dancing a bit in the warm oil, add the red pepper flakes, anchovy paste or anchovy fillets, capers, olives, and sundried tomatoes. Stir gently with a flat-bladed wooden spoon.
- At this point, your garlic should be golden. Add the red wine all at once. It will sizzle madly. Use your flat-bladed spoon to scrape any bits that have adhered to the bottom of the pan back into the sauce you are now creating. This is deglazing the pan, and it adds incredible flavor.
- Simmer for 5 minutes, to let some of the alcohol flavor cook out of the wine.
- After 5 minutes, the quantity of wine will have reduced a bit, and the smell will be amazing. Add the diced tomatoes and the dried herbs and turn the heat down to medium-low.
- Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently.
- While the sauce is simmering, cook pasta of your choice in salted water until just al dente.
- When the pasta still has a slight bite to it, drain it, then add it to your sauce and stir or spoon it around gently to evenly distribute it through the sauce. Cook pasta and sauce together for 1-2 minutes.
- Add parsley and serve. We like ours with a loaf of good bread, sometimes toasted, sometimes anxiously torn into pieces, to mop up any lingering sauce.
Big news, oh friends: come July, N. and I are moving. We’re leaving Eugene, OR and heading south for Los Angeles, where N. landed a great job.
I’m sad about this, of course. I love Eugene. I love its beauty, and I’ve made some of the best friends and eaten some of the best food of my life here. I don’t love the way the weather lately has been playing winter/spring/winter/spring/summer/winter on us, and I’m terrified it will pour on graduation day in a week or so. But mostly I love it.
Yet this move presents the potential for plenty of new delights. LA is a foodie paradise. A quick search on Yelp for our new area revealed restaurants serving every kind of food I could possibly crave, and some I’ve never tried before. Ethiopian will be new to me, as will Caribbean (outside of the ubiquitous and usually inauthentic jerk [insert your protein of choice here]). The idea of being back in a place with excellent Chinese and Mexican food is overwhelming. But it’s not just restaurant food that I’m looking forward to. The Willamette Valley in Oregon boasts great growing conditions for lots of foods, including berries of all kinds, hazelnuts, and plenty of local produce. But Southern California has so much, given its balmy temperatures year round, that buying and eating local food will suddenly become much easier – not even from farmers’ markets and farm stands, but even from the grocery store. Avocados, citrus, grapes, all no longer destroy the locavore dream. Even the backyard of the house we will be moving into has a lemon tree. A lemon tree! This excites me almost more than anything else about the whole situation!
Our upcoming relocation also presents a challenge. N. and I have lived in our current home for four years. We have lived in Eugene for six. Over that much time, things accumulate. Not just house things, like forgotten books and extra sweaters and skillets I shoved in the back of that cabinet N. hates when I replaced them with Circulon non-stick wonders. Food things. We have so many half-empty jars of condiments. So many bags of frozen vegetables bought on a buy-one-get-one sale. Blackberries from last summer and cranberries from Thanksgiving, carefully preserved on the shelves of my freezer. Canisters of rice, and brown rice, and millet, and dried beans, and barley, and noodles in the pantry. It’s a lot of stuff.
So here comes the challenge: interspersed with regular food posts and wedding cupcake practice and the occasional, still-kicking-because-I-can’t-bear-to-abandon-it Bittman dish, I will be instituting a new project. I’m calling it “Emptying the Fridge.” Each week when I make our menu plan, I’m going to try to incorporate at least one dish that requires the remnants – or a good quantity – of at least one refrigerator, freezer, or pantry item. I’m not talking about things we use all the time, like yogurt or bread or eggs. I’m talking about the minimal use items, like anchovy paste, or capers, or champagne honey mustard, or chili garlic paste.
This week, I have plans for several items, and though I may not eliminate them, I will at least make a dent in several jars. After a barbeque a few weeks ago featuring a peanut noodle side dish, I decided I want to make Ina Garten’s Szechuan Noodles. This requires a whole cadre of ingredients including peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and various vegetables. It also, of importance to this project, requires hot chili sauce and tahini. Both of these items currently languish on my refrigerator door, awaiting stir-fries and hummus. But this week, they will shine and diminish simultaneously.
Other plans include a white bean puree I will invent (and post the recipe for, if it turns out well) to work on using up the four cans (four? How can I possibly have four?) of white beans in my pantry, and peanut butter energy bars, which will help eliminate the giant canister of oats I’ve gotten too stubborn to turn into oatmeal. At a certain point, you have to eat like it’s summer, even if the sky says it isn’t, don’t you? But snack bars are a worthy and not-un-spring-like application.
This project is, I think, a combination of homestyle Iron Chef and Chopped. Not only are there feature or star ingredients, but after a while the pairings of available options will become unusual and require a certain amount of ingenuity to use up. I like this, because it prepares me for the Food Network show I will never have, which I would call “Empty Fridge.” EF would consist of me trying to use limited pantry and refrigerator items to create something delicious without having to make an extra trip to the store, so in essence it’s Chopped-at-Home. The difference with my current project, though, is that I am not prohibited from shopping, and am in fact planning ahead based on the contents of my condiment collection to determine our dinners.
Come August, you can expect an abundance (after a short hiatus, most likely – moving and blogging don’t necessarily mesh well) of drooling and groveling over our new location and its diverse and numerous highlights. But until then, you can look forward to quarter jars of mustard, forgotten marinated artichoke hearts, and hidden canned peaches in various applications. Hopefully, in this case, not in the same meal…