Dearest Gnocchi;

I hate it when we argue. You get huffy and difficult, I call for delivery. Neither of us ends up happy.

I said some things I didn't mean. I was upset and I was being rash. I wasn't thinking straight. I was hungry.

I am sorry.

I insinuated that you were uncooperative, and that was unkind. You've never been shy to express your preference for a coaxing hand over an impatient one, and I should have kept that in mind.

It was cruel of me to mention your flabby midsection. (And please don't think that unintentional rhyme makes my sentiment any less sincere.) You were having an off day. I see that now.

Grant me this, please - you were being somewhat, completely impossible to work with, no? We can each shoulder some of the blame I should think, don't you?

Alright then, I'll settle to call it even. After your return performance the other night, I'm in a forgiving mood.

That night you behaved beautifully; your character was beguiling, delicate. You were the ideal dinner guest. Your company was so delicious that our earlier spat was the furthest thing from my mind.

Let's never fight again.

SWEET POTATO GNOOCHI WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS

I should start by saying that this is not the recipe that gave me such troubles last week. The gnocchi by Melissa Roberts by way of Gourmet are a treat, and the recipe together quickly enough as to reassure the harried cook of their competence.

The combination of sweet potato and sprout is a new one to me, as I threw them together on a whim, but their shared earthiness makes them a match for the ages, with the sweetness of one subduing the slight bitterness of the other. Then we introduce some meaty walnuts for texture, a moment of crunch amongst the softness. Fine, salty threads of Parmesan round out the group, bringing along just enough nuttiness to repeat that same note found in its platemates. Fast friends, to be sure.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved and steamed until just tender
  • Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
  • Half recipe Sweet Potato Gnocchi (uncooked pasta only, not sauce)
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

METHOD

In a large well-seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat, melt the butter into the olive oil. Cook until the butter begins to brown, around 1-2 minutes. Working quickly, add the Brussels sprouts to the pan, cut sides down. Let them sizzle just long enough to pick up some colour, then toss to coat with the butter and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the gnocchi for around 3 minutes, or from the moment they float to the surface wait a minute more. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the gnocchi to the still-warm skillet with the sprouts and half of the toasted walnuts. Gently fold to combine, then check again for seasoning.

Remove to a serving dish, sprinkle with the reserved walnuts and top with Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4 as a first course or 6 as a generous side.

Note: The ever-charming Kelly, who has had her own dumpling issues in the past, was also beguiled by the Sweet Potato Gnocchi and wrote about it here.

Growing up, my best friend was right next door. It was one of those friendships where sleepovers were weekly, staying over for dinner was almost daily, and company was constant. We were lucky enough to live on a street where everyone knew everybody, where children ran freely from yard to yard wreaking havoc and laughter. It was a great place to live, with pool parties and backyard barbecues crowned with sparklers at the end.

Beyond the fun we had, my most vivid memory of these childhood friendships was the food. I think of those barbecues and I can taste the juice of sticky sweet watermelons, I think of strawberries picked from the bushes in the backyard, and of fingers stained a myriad of rainbow colours from Fun Dip.

But most of all I think about the kitchens - ours and the one next door. While our house was filled with the flavours of India and England, theirs was bursting with those of Italy. So as much as my Grandmother's shepherd's pie and my Mother's chicken curry figure largely in my remembrance of childhood, so do jars and jars of pickled red peppers, tender veal cutlets, and handmade breads for the holidays. The alchemy of homemade wine was a mystery to us. I was fascinated by the yearly ritual, and the enormous glass carafes that would take up residence in the basement. Oh goodness, and Nutella - that wonderful dark chocolate and hazelnut spread that is nothing short of ambrosia to a 6 year old.

As kids, we ate all meals at home, walking home from school at lunchtime. As far as I can recall, the business of meals was simply part of the daily ritual. I never had the impression that it was a bother, or that it was a chore (though it must have been, sometimes).

I cannot help but think that it was this assumption of good, fresh food that has shaped how I cook today. Even when tired or frustrated, it is not often that I am too tired to cook. I may be vexed about my day, but I am not vexed about the food. Sure, it may sometimes be simple, but the process of preparing food is integral to the routine of my day; I feel I have forgotten something without it.

I am thankful for those early influences, and that food and philosophy are remembered fondly - and often. As with most of us, I am sure, pasta has endured as a comfort food in our household. In its preparation, I sometimes stop to remember those meals from years ago, hoping I can come close to those tastes.

While this vegetable bolognese is far from traditional, and nothing I had as a child, it still brings me that sense of comforting nostalgia. Slowly stirred aromatic vegetables cooked until deeply flavoured and tender, then served with hot pasta and a snowfall of Paremsan - how memorable is that?

Vegetarian bolognese
My version was a combination of recipes; as I did not write down quantities as I cooked, I thought it best to simply provide the same guides I used. If anyone would like specifics, please feel free to contact me.

Sources:

Pappardelle with vegetable bolognese from Epicurious
Rigatoni with vegetable bolognese from Giada de Laurentiis

Specific changes and notes:

• Added 1/2 a large eggplant and 1 medium zucchini to the vegetables called for. As I prefer my mushrooms and eggplant to be well caramelized and golden, I cooked them separately from the rest first, then added them to the soffritto as per the recipe.
• 6 oil packed sundried tomatoes were puréed and added along with the tomato paste.
• The wine was replaced with vegetable broth and a splash of red wine vinegar.
• The photograph featured does not include marscarpone, as I intended to freeze a portion; the dairy is added just before serving, and I do believe the sauce needs a bit of richness at the finish. Full fat cream cheese can be used if mascarpone is unavailable.
• This sauce is particularly nice when thinned with a bit of pasta cooking water, then tossed through with your favourite medium tube pasta and chunks of fresh mozzarella.

While my husband does not share my love of cooking, I take great pleasure in the fact that he does share my love of food. With is combination of enthusiasm and appetite, he is a rewarding audience to cook for - appreciative and just a bit greedy.

While I was thrilled at recent gifts of cookbooks and foodie magazines, a part of me does think that my dear Sean was even more excited. After far too many days featuring the customary menus of the season, it was he that flipped through my new books, taking note of any particularly tempting ideas. Feeling a bit burnt out after the aforementioned feasts, I was all too happy to hand over the responsibility of culinary creativity (and the associated shopping trip) to my willing partner.

It is a strategy we have been known to employ, one that prevents me from falling into a routine of recipes and challenges me a bit to boot. I will admit to exercising executive privilege now and again, balancing Sean’s often-carnivorous tendencies with lighter fare or substituting ingredients I know are more suited to our tastes. The exercise keeps us both involved in the decision of what we eat, with Sean frequently, and pleasantly, surprising me with his choices.

Most recently, it was a recipe by Tyler Florence that piqued interest - fat noodles with buttered artichokes and crab. Looking at the requisite glossy photo presented alongside, the unctuous tangle of pasta and seafood immediately recalled Nigella Lawson's chili crab with linguine. Featured in the book Forever Summer and on the television series of the same name, hers is a recipe I have carried around in my mind for years. I vividly recall salivating over the sauce alone - luscious bits of pink crab meat specked fiery orange with chili. It was one that I have always intended to make, but have never found the occasion.

Not wanting to pass up the chance now, I combined the two recipes to best appease my (nagging) curiosity and to meet Sean’s request. The result was a triumph; rich enough to feel a bit special and celebratory, still fresh with bright lemon and peppery ribbons of green.

A harmonious beginning to a new year.

Linguine with crab and artichokes
My interpretation of recipes from Nigella Lawson and Tyler Florence. I had not intended to share this recipe, but after tasting it I decided it was worthy of a feature. My sincere apologies; some of the ingredient quantities are estimates as I did not weigh and measure as I cooked, as I usually do.

Ingredients
500 g linguine
1 large clove peeled garlic, or two if you are so inclined
2 teaspoons kosher salt
A good pinch, about a scant 1/4 teaspoon, dried chili flakes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
275 ml jar of artichokes, drained and rinsed well, halved if large
250 g crab meat, preferably lump
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
A couple of handfuls of baby arugula (rocket), or other greens
Pepper, to taste

Put a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Cook the pasta, according to package directions or to taste. As the pasta will continue to cook when you toss it with the warm sauce, I would advise cooking until just under al dente.

Meanwhile, in a small food processor or pestle and mortar, crush the garlic, salt and chili flakes into a smooth purée. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and olive oil. When just melted, add about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta cooking liquid, along with the garlic purée. Continue to cook, stirring, until reduced by about 1/3. When thickened, add the artichokes and gently toss to coat.

With the heat on low, add the crab meat, lemon zest and juice and stir to combine. Tip in the cooked, drained pasta, turning so that the noodles are well-slicked with the buttery juices. Add the parsley and arugula, continuing to turn until the greens are slightly wilted. Check for seasoning, garnish with additional chili and fresh greens if desired, serve.

Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a light lunch or entrée.

I am a person who spends far too much time thinking about food.

Though this tendency could most likely be attributed to my simple greed, which I will not deny, I am also intrigued by the way that we relate to our food. I know I have said it before, and admired those who have said it more eloquently, but I am still fascinated by the way food can not only be a source of nutrition but also such a part of the way we live our lives.

Our meals can be a creative expression, a link to the past or an exploration of possibility. Or, we can eat to satiate the need to fuel the body.

I have been eavesdropping on an ongoing conversation regarding the place for shortcuts, take out and convenience food in the kitchen. The discussion touches upon the ever-increasing popularity of certain network television personalities and their accompanying “semi-homemade” philosophies.

Without taking a particular side of the table so to speak, I did stop to consider the food my family eats on a daily basis; outside of the grand food holidays and events, simply Monday to Friday sort of fare.

I have always eaten reasonably well. Lucky to have the luxury of a childhood in a family of cooks, convenience food and take out was the exception rather than the rule. In my early adulthood, I tried to get my 8-10 servings of vegetables per day, even if they were sometimes interspersed with a pint and burger at the local pub.

It was when I became pregnant that I really felt the impact of the food choices I made. I was suddenly responsible for more than just me and my waistline. With each bite, I realized what I was eating was what would sustain my child. What would help him develop, help him grow strong and nurture him before I could even hold him in my arms.

As you may well imagine, heavily-processed foods, caffeine, additives, nitrates and the like where not on the menu.

With Benjamin’s birth, a part of my Mummyhood has come to include the role of family nutritionist and meal provider. I know that I am the one that is, in large part, shaping the way he views food. The way he views how food is made. The way he views food as part of his life - as energy or as something more.

It is that something more that I think about most. I think about how somewhere along the way society developed this love-hate relationship with food. We love indulgence, yet hate the consequences; we move from extremes of decadence to extremes of denial.

In our day-to-day food is frequently regarded as an inconvenience; something that takes time from all the more important things that we have scheduled for ourselves.

I can only speak for myself. I can only say what works for me. I have chosen to make good food a priority. Not simply the act of eating, though I do believe in taking the time to eat as a family whenever possible, but also the act of shopping, preparing and discussing food. Nutrition, tradition, why we eat what we eat when we eat it - all of these are topics I hope to share with my son as I share them with my dear Sean now.

I want Benjamin to realize that sometimes things are worth effort or time, and that the proof is truly in the pudding. I hope he sees the beauty in a balanced life.

I will admit that there are frozen pizzas in my freezer. I will also admit that there are a stack of take out menus in a drawer somewhere. But I will also point out the recipe books, pots and pans and utensils that fill our cupboards.

I do not scorn convenience. Cooking may not be for everyone. But I will rally against the notion that cooking is nothing more than a chore. There is beauty in the process of making food, even when at its most basic. There is a poetry in it that tells you “this is worthwhile.”

I made this pasta as a quick dinner when my dear Sean was working late. Inspired by a love for spaghettti alla carbonara, all the elements of the original are here. Salty pork punctuating a tangle of creamy, egg-blanketed pasta. I have added chicken stock to the sauce for a fresher version suited for early spring. The mix of asaparagus and mushrooms also seem fitting for the season, and the crisped prosciutto is tender, yet still toothsome, among the pappardelle.

It should have taken about 10 minutes to come together, but again, priorities came into play. I stopped prepping once because of a potential altercation between Benjamin and Miss Billie the Cat (priority). I continued when Benjamin chose to dump his toys across the floor (not a priority). I paused again to kiss my husband hello (priority). Then I finished making dinner.

Far from Rockwellian, but we did manage for the three of us to end up around the dinner table; all eating the same meal, at the same time.

I, for one, felt truly nourished.

Creamy mushroom and asparagus pappardelle
Lighter than a traditional carbonara, but still retaining its charm, this pasta is a quick and satisfying weeknight meal.

Ingredients

4 slices prosciutto
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
150 g trimmed and cut asparagus spears
250 g cremini or brown mushrooms, cut into halves or quarters depending on size
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
175 g pappardelle
30 g grated parmesan cheese
Generous teaspoon thyme leaves
2 large eggs
1/3 cup mixture of chicken stock and cream, whatever ratio suits your taste

Cook the prosciutto under a preheated broiler for about 3 minutes, until crisp and lightly golden. Set aside.

In a frying pan over medium high heat, sauté shallots in the olive oil for about a minute, or until beginning to turn translucent. Add mushrooms and asparagus, season sparingly with salt and pepper and cook for 6 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Reduce the heat to low.

Meanwhile, cook pappardelle in a large pot of salted boiling water until just under al dente, or slightly less than package instructions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the pappardelle to the vegetable mixture, turning to combine. The pasta will darken as it absorbs the olive oil and juices from the vegetables. Crumble in prosciutto. Turn off heat.

Whisk together parmesan cheese, eggs, thyme leaves, cream and chicken stock in a small bowl.

Working quickly, add the egg mixture to the pappardelle and toss to coat. Continue to stir until the eggs are cooked and slightly thickened; the sauce will thoroughly cling to the noodles. Add the reserved pasta water as necessary until the desired consistency is achieved. Season with additional pepper.

Best eaten immediately. Serves 2 rather generously, or 3 when feeding one adult male with a hearty appetite, one adult female with a medium appetite and one greedy little toddler.

Notes:
• I used a ratio of about 3 parts stock to 1 part 10% cream. Use whatever amounts, and butterfat content cream, that suits you.
• Baby spinach can also be substituted for the asparagus. If you are lucky enough to come across fresh morels, they would be fantastic here.

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