March 25, 2009

Spaghetti di mezzanotte

Literally translated as "midnight spaghetti" this is the Italian version of a midnight snack (or, in my case, more likely a quick and easy late supper). It is also known as spaghetti aglio e olio (spaghetti with oil and garlic) .

Oil and garlic are essential - the rest is left to the creativity of the cook. I sometimes add an anchovy fillet, as I did here, hot pepper flakes and parsley. You can also add grated lemon peel or lemon juice but really you want to stick to the basics here if you want it to be traditional.

This really is perfect for when you want something light but tasty and are not feeling in the mood to make anything that requires too much effort. Oil and garlic may seem boring but this dish is amazing - real Italian comfort food - and I defy you to find a single Italian home that does not have this pasta on its table on a regular basis!

This is my entry for this week's Presto Pasta Night hosted this week all the way from Singapore (heaven for food lovers!) by Aquadaze of Served with Love.

Spaghetti di mezzanotte
Serves 4

500g spaghetti
4 tbsp olive oil
2 anchovy fillets
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
3 tbsp fine breadcrumbs
3 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and pepperoncino to taste

Prepare spaghetti according to package directions.
While spaghetti is cooking heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add garlic, anchovy and pepperoncino and saute gently until anchovy "melts". Add the breadcrumbs and about half of the chopped parsley; saute for a minute or two until lightly toasted.
Drain the spaghetti and add to pan with the olive oil and breadcrumb mixture and toss. Sprinkle fresh parsley over spaghetti and serve.

March 22, 2009

Cranberry Coconut Oat Bars

I have a confession to make:  I am not a breakfast person.  Even though I know that it is the most important meal of the day, breakfast has never really played much of a role in my morning routine and instead I fritter my time away in the morning, puttering around doing I really don't know what.  No matter what time I get up I am always rushing out the door without lipstick, let alone breakfast.  

Recently I have been working hard to change that and fit breakfast into my weekday schedule, recreating a take-away version of my favourite weekend breakfast (steel-cut oats with blueberries and maple syrup) with oatmeal to go stashed in my desk drawer at work.

I have also been experimenting with make-ahead breakfasts and last week I made baked egg cups with turkey sausage which were a huge hit.  This week I decided to try Nigella Lawson's Breakfast Bars (Nigella Express: Good Food Fast) as an alternative to store-bought granola bars.

Chock full of oats, dried cranberries, coconut and seeds these bars are absolutely delicious but unfortunately too sweet for my morning taste buds (even though I cut back quite a lot on the amount of condensed milk in the recipe).  Now I have these great snacks to munch on in the afternoons but no breakfast on the go for the week!

Cranberry Coconut Oat Bars
Adapted from Nigella Lawson's Breakfast Bars
Makes 16 bars

300 ml low fat condensed milk
2 1/4 cups rolled oats
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 250 degrees and line a 9x13 inch baking pan with aluminum foil.

Heat condensed milk in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until warm, then add all the other ingredients and stir until well combined.

Spread the mixture in the pan and press down.  Bake for approximately 1 hour.  

Allow bars to cool in the pan for 15 minutes before removing.  Cut into 16 bars and allow to cool completely.

March 18, 2009

Pasta al tonno (Pasta with tuna sauce)

Another of my husband's favourites: pasta with tuna. This sauce is traditionally paired with spaghetti but I decided to go with the penne rigate, my all-purpose pasta shape, since I had an opened box.

Love this dish for those nights when I want to whip up a quick meal and have nothing in the fridge. All that is required is a few pantry staples and, in about the same time that it takes to boil a pot of water and cook pasta, I can make a delicious and nutritious pasta dish. It's what I love most about Italian cooking - simple, fast, delicious.

The ingredients: tomato puree, tuna packed in olive oil (Italian if at all possible), garlic, olive oil, tomato paste (optional - I often omit it) and fresh basil (optional but no substituting dried basil).

Italian tuna in olive oil is an absolute must - I can't emphasize this enough - it truly makes a difference.

Pasta with tuna is my submission to Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by Pam of Sidewalk Shoes. Hop on over to Pam's blog on Friday to check out this week's roundup (and get some great ideas to try over the weekend)!

Pasta al tonno (pasta with tuna sauce)
Serves 4 to 6

500g spaghetti (or other pasta of your choice)
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of a small saucepan)
1 clove garlic, sliced
2-80g cans of Italian tuna packed in olive oil, drained
1 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
500 ml tomato puree
fresh basil (optional)

In a small saucepan over moderate heat add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and add the garlic. Saute briefly until aromatic (about 1 minute) and add tuna and tomato paste (if using) and saute for a minute or two.

Add tomato puree and bring to a slow boil. Lower heat and add basil. Cook at a slow simmer for 10 - 15 minutes.

Cook pasta according to package directions in a large quantity of salted boiling water. Drain and add to tomato sauce off heat. Top with torn basil leaves and mix. Serve immediately.

March 15, 2009

Orange glow chiffon cake

I broke one of my cardinal rules of baking with this cake and let someone (who shall remain nameless) cut into it before it was fully cooled.  The cake was still delicious but it was not very photogenic.   As a result I don't have a single decent photo of the finished cake so you'll have to take my word for it that, having made this cake several times, it is a lovely orange-scented chiffon cake.

The recipe is taken from Rose Levy Berenbaum's classic Cake Bible and can be found on epicurious.  
In her book Berenbaum refers to this cake as "incomparably refreshing" and I couldn't agree more.  Incorporating both orange juice (freshly squeezed!) and zest, it's like a burst of sunshine. 

The batter is incredibly billowy and airy (my spouse called it the "marshmallow batter") and is incredibly perfumed - the wonderful orange scent filled my kitchen as I was mixing the batter and then again while the cake was baking. 

Like I said, my husband couldn't wait until it was completely cooled before snagging a piece.

March 14, 2009

Grilled cheese with rapini

The rapini obsession continues with a grilled cheese and rapini sandwich. Rapini seem to be on special everywhere lately and they are so fresh and tender I can't pass them up.  So now I'm putting them into my sandwiches as well as having them with pasta!

I used havarti cheese here (highly recommended for grilled cheese!) but just about any melting cheese will do.  

Sometimes less really is more. 

March 10, 2009

Orecchiette con cime di rapa

This is one of my favourite pasta dishes of all time - I could eat it every day of the week (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but it definitely makes a regular appearance on my table). Fortunately, in addition to being tasty eats, it's also pretty darn good for you so it's a guilt-free "indulgence".

Italians like to give very descriptive names to their pasta shapes and these little cap-shaped shells are called "orecchiette", which means "little ears". They are traditionally made by hand in the Puglia and Basilicata regions of southern Italy. The dough is rolled into a thin rope and then cut into small pieces which are individually dragged on a board, typically with a knife, and then turned out with the thumb; this is what creates the characteristic roughness on the outside of the pasta. It may look simple but trust me it takes a lot of practice to master this shape.

No worries if you're not up to the challenge of making your own because good orecchiette are now widely available. If you can find them, do yourself a favour and pick up a bag of artisanal orecchiette (they are usually made in Italy and will be labelled "artigianale"). They are available at every Italian grocery I have ever been in and are carried by some supermarkets - they are pricey but they cook up dense and chewy and are well worth the few extra pennies a bowl.

Even better, visit Bari in Puglia or Matera, a city in Basilicata renowned for its incredible bread - often considered the best in Italy. While few North Americans venture to these areas of Italy it is a trip worth making. Mountainous and rugged regions, they contain many hidden treasures.

In addition to having a reputation for delicious food, Matera is also a UNESCO world heritage site famous for the "sassi di Matera", ancient homes dug right into the rock face, essentially forming caves that have been inhabited for thousands of years.

The best orecchiette I ever had were in Matera on a visit a few years ago at a restaurant overlooking the sassi. Technically they were "strascinate", which are slightly flatter than orecchiette, but otherwise quite similar. They were fresh and made by hand and I can still taste them now...

Sorry, where was I? Right, recreating this dish at home. It's pretty simple and, like most Italian cooking, comes down to the freshness of the ingredients.

Rapini are at their best and most tender in the colder months. In Italy the growing season begins in the winter and stretches into early spring, but where I live (which is unfortunately much colder than Italy) rapini are in season in the late summer through autumn. Imported rapini are available year-round but this pasta really is at its best during the colder months so enjoy it while you can because spring is just around the corner (I hope!).

Trim and wash a bunch of rapini (aka broccoli rabe) - you want to remove any yellowed leaves and the trim the ends of the stalks. Avoid buying rapini that have flowered (you will see small yellow flowers blooming in the buds); while they are still edible it is a sign that the greens are past their prime.

I like to saute the rapini with a bit of water, olive oil, garlic and pepperoncino - my mother, on the other hand, prefers to add the rapini to the pasta while it's cooking (about halfway through the cooking time). My method preserves the integrity of the rapini whereas the boiling method removes more of the bitterness of the greens. Both are delicious and it comes down to personal preference - I like the pronounced taste of rapini but if you want milder greens then by all means boil away!

I also like to add breadcrumbs sauteed in extra-virgin olive oil to the finished dish. Once the rapini are cooked remove them from the pan. Return the pan to medium heat and add a bit of olive oil then add a small handful of fine breadcrumbs. Heat through for a few seconds and then pour over the cooked pasta and rapini and serve. Delish!

Buon appetito!

This is my submission to Presto Pasta Nights which is being hosted this week by Ben of What's Cooking. Head on over to Ben's site on Friday to check out this week's roundup.

Orecchiette con cime di rapa
Serves 4-6

500g orecchiette pasta (preferably an artisanal brand)
2 bunches rapini, washed and trimmed
2 tbsp olive oil
50 ml water
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp fine breadcrumbs
salt and pepperoncino to taste

Prepare pasta according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add garlic and pepperoncino and saute until you smell the aroma of the garlic (this should take no more than a minute). Add rapini and 50 ml of water and cook until tender and the water has evaporated.*

Place the rapini in a bowl and return the pan to medium heat. Add the second tablespoon of olive oil and the breadcrumbs; saute for a minute or two until lightly toasted.

Drain the orecchiette and toss with the rapini and pour the olive oil and breadcrumb mixture over the top and toss again.

*Variation: If you prefer milder greens, skip this step and add the rapini to the pasta water while the pasta is cooking, approximately halfway through the cooking time. Saute the garlic with the pepperoncino and then add the breadcrumbs to the pan and toss with the drained pasta and rapini when cooked.

March 8, 2009

Midnight Muffins

My Christmas present to myself was a new cookbook - Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More: 200 Anytime Treats and Special Sweets for Morning to Midnight by Carole Walter - and the very first recipe I made from the cookbook was jeff's chocolate glazed midnight muffins for my 6 year old niece.  Needless to say they were a big hit (even though I made them without the glaze).  

They were dark and had great chocolate flavour.  The photo here doesn't do them justice - I'm still experimenting with different exposures on my digital camera and the lighting made them look washed out but, trust me, their colour really does live up to their name.

The recipe calls for cocoa powder but Carole Walter did not specify whether to use natural or Dutch-processed.  Having a bit of time on my hands I decided to try a little experiment to see if the type of cocoa powder would make any noticeable difference.  I made two batches of muffins - one with natural and one with Dutch-process cocoa powder.

While both finished products were absolutely delicious, the unanimous verdict was that the ones with the Dutch-process cocoa powder had a more delicate chocolate flavour which was less overwhelming than those made with the natural cocoa powder.  If bold chocolate flavour is your thing then definitely go with the natural cocoa - those muffins were especially yummy with a tall glass of milk.

Aside from omitting the glaze, I decided to throw in a few milk chocolate chips (which I had bought by mistake on a rushed shopping trip) in place of the recommended walnuts.  Normally I find milk chocolate too sweet and cloying in baked goods but I hate wasting food.  Surprisingly the chips added a lovely depth of flavour to the muffins.

These muffins are super-easy to make and are real crowd-pleasers.  I just wish that Walter would give the pre-sifted volume measurement (or even better the weight measurement) for ingredients like cocoa powder.  I really hate having to sift then measure (so messy!) so next time I make these muffins I will weigh the ingredients and jot down the weights next to the volume measurements to make it easier. 

March 5, 2009

Farfalle alla panna con funghi e pancetta

Whenever my husband asks me to make something special the dish he most often requests is pasta with mushroom and bacon cream sauce, which works for me since this dish comes together in minutes (and the best part is that he hasn't caught on to that yet).

Let's not kid ourselves here - with bacon and cream as the main ingredients this is a rich dish to be savoured on occasion. However, being somewhat health conscious, I do try to mitigate the damage by using table cream (which contains 18% milk fat) instead of whipping cream - half the fat but with no noticeable difference in taste or texture. I have tried lower fat cream without much success so I recommend the table cream (or the whipping cream if you're feeling especially decadent).

I like the flavour of cremini mushrooms but I have to admit that they tint the sauce somewhat (not an issue in my household but if you want a pristine sauce feel free to substitute white button mushrooms). I like the smoky flavour of bacon but pancetta also works well in this recipe. Careful with the salt or you'll be sorry since the bacon and the pancetta are quite salty.

This is my first submission to Presto Pasta Nights, a blog event all about pasta (yum!) created by Ruth at Once Upon a Feast. This also happens to be PPN's second birthday - congratulations Ruth on two years of delicious pasta posts!

Farfalle with mushroom and bacon cream sauce
Serves 4-6

500g (approx. 1 lb) farfalle pasta
250 ml (1 cup) table cream (18%)
250g (8oz) sliced mushrooms
4 strips bacon
1 tsp olive oil
grated parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water according to directions on package. Pasta should be cooked to al dente.

While the pasta is cooking cut the bacon into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces and saute in a dry pan until crispy. Remove bacon from pan and drain on a paper towel.

Drain bacon fat from pan and add 1 tsp olive oil. Add sliced mushrooms and saute over medium-high heat until cooked. You may add a bit of salt to help the mushrooms release their water.

When the mushrooms are cooked add the cream to the pan and stir. Return the cooked bacon to the pan and allow the cream mixture to simmer over medium-low heat for a few minutes until slightly thickened. The mixture will thicken further once the pasta is added so do not overcook at this stage. If desired, add salt to taste (I don't usually add salt here as the bacon and parmesan cheese are quite salty).

Drain pasta, reserving about 1 cup of pasta water. Add cooked pasta to pan with cream sauce and toss, adding pasta water a little bit at a time if necessary to loosen up the sauce.

Remove from heat and stir in parmesan cheese.