Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce

I like to cook with alcohol. There. I’ve said it.
This fact embarrasses me a little. Not the cooking with it aspect, per se. More, it is the act of having a fifth of vodka in my freezer that I feel needs to be explained. I actually hide it, but it’s there, back behind a stack of frozen vegetables and buried underneath a couple other things. And I don’t actually go to the liquor store to buy it myself. I send The Carnivore. I have only been to a liquor store once since The Big Boy was born, and I was positively mortified to walk in with him on my hip, but I desperately needed some coffee liqueur for the tiramisu that I was craving. I loudly announced to the clerk that I needed the liqueur for a dessert, and I’m sure he thought that the lady doth protest too much. When I walked out, and realized I had chosen to go to the store on quite possibly the busiest street in town, and I saw my brother-in-law drive by, and there I was with an 18-month old on my hip and a brown paper bag in my hand, I swore I would not do that again. Not with a kid. No way. I live in The Deep South. People will talk.
But since I’m not at all willing to stop cooking with alcohol, I send The Carnivore in my stead. It’s all a matter of priorities. Well, that and I don’t care what people say about him. Matter of fact, I need some rum for an ice cream recipe that I found on David Lebovitz’ website months ago, so I may need to send him there today.
I use cooking wine in a number of recipes, but those are the "wines" people don’t actually drink, the ones sold in small bottles next to the vinegars and oils on the pasta aisle in the store. And while they add depth to soup recipes and they’re necessary in deglazing when making pan sauces, these cheap little bottles are nothing to write home about (and certainly nothing to hide from the Sunday School teacher, you know?).
A few years ago though, I read an article about using vodka in tomato sauces and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. As odd as the concept seemed to me and my neophyte cooking ways, the description the writer gave of the slow burn from the vodka and the velvety smoothness of some added cream, well, it pushed all my buttons. So I cut out the recipe and quietly asked The Carnivore to pick up a very small bottle of vodka on his way home from work. He was dubious, especially when he heard I planned to use it in a pasta recipe, but he came home that day with a brown paper bag in his hand and I thanked my lucky stars that my mother didn’t just happen to drop by that afternoon.
I was a little nervous about the recipe. Neither of us had partaken of a drop to drink in a few years at that point, but since I was neither pregnant nor breastfeeding at the moment, I figured we didn’t have much to lose here. So I followed the recipe to the letter, and withheld a few unsullied penne noodles for our then-Odd-Toddler (because I was pretty sure he didn’t need any vodka sauce in his diet) and we sat down to eat. I hesitantly brought a forkful of heavily sauced pasta to my mouth and chewed thoughtfully. The sauce had a rich and luxuriously soft mouthfeel. The taste was, at first, not unlike any other well-prepared tomato and cream sauce, but then, as I swallowed, I felt that slow burn that the author had written about in the article that started this whole experiment.
We loved it. What we didn’t expect, however, was that after we had each finished about half of our dinner, we started to, um, feel the vodka, if you know what I mean. This was the first time I had cooked with real alcohol, you see, and I didn’t realize that this recipe I was using was lacking in technique. As I later realized, the point is to let the alcohol cook off so that the taste remains (but the tipsy-factor does not). This particular recipe had added the vodka towards the end of the cooking so we were getting all the alcohol with our dinner.
I pushed my plate away, out of fear, before I had finished. The Carnivore finished his, but muttered, “I’m still hungry, but I’m afraid I’ll get drunk if I eat any more.” We made some popcorn, tossed the rest of the pasta onto the compost heap, and pushed the bottle of vodka to the very back of the bottom shelf of the freezer.
Then, oh, months later, I saw an article in Cook’s Illustrated on vodka sauce and I happily dug around in the freezer until I got my hands on that bottle again. Because, of course, I really didn’t want to waste the rest of that bottle, but obviously I wasn’t spending a lot of time making martinis. And, let’s face it, I wanted to taste a proper vodka sauce.
The writer wrote of trying to develop a less boozy sauce which was exactly what we were after, and happily, their recipe worked. Of course it did though, right? It was Cook’s Illustrated after all. But, as with most Cook’s recipes, it was long on ingredients and technique, and the whole thing kind of stressed me out. I made it a time or two, and while we were pleased with the results, I wasn’t head-over-heels for it and besides, I lost the issue that the recipe came in and their website isn’t big on sharing. Unless you pay for it. Which I didn’t want to do.
So we went without for a time, even though we now had a large bottle of vodka languishing in the nether regions of our freezer and I kept my eyes open for other uses (ignoring the temptation to make jello shots when the kid was driving me batty).
Finally I came upon the right recipe in the September 2007 issue of Cooking Light magazine. It is a simple vodka sauce that can be made with ingredients I keep on hand at all times (perfect for when things have gone awry and I can’t stick to the menu for which I have shopped) and yet it is easy to embellish upon if I feel so inclined and have the time to leisurely go about dinner prep. Oh, and it won’t get me tipsy.


PASTA WITH VODKA CREAM SAUCE (adapted from Cooking Light, yields about 4 cups)
  • 1/2 pound penne pasta
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 tsp salt, divided
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 Tbs thinly sliced fresh basil
  1. Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and keep warm.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion to pan; saute for 2 or 3 minutes, until tender.
  4. Add 1/4 tsp salt, pepper, and garlic. Saute for 1 minute.
  5. Add vodka and bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid is reduced by half (this can take anywhere from 4 minutes to 10 minutes, and it isn't crucial that you're terribly exact about it).
  7. Stir in 1/2 tsp salt, broth, and tomatoes. Bring to a boil.
  8. Reduce heat, and simmer for about 8 minutes.
  9. Puree the sauce using an immersion blender in the skillet, or by pouring everything into a blender and removing the center piece to allow steam to escape.
  10. Pour sauce back into skillet and stir in cream.
  11. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until cream is incorporated.
  12. Remove from heat. Stir together with pasta, remaining 1/4 tsp of salt, and basil.

When I'm feeling decadent, I stir in a Tbs of cream cheese to the sauce at the end. Or, if I'm feeling feisty, I'll use more crushed red pepper than the recipe calls for. The recipe feeds four when served with fresh, crusty bread and a simple green salad. This week I served it with another batch of the focaccia bread that I wrote about recently - this batch was made with basil and Pecorino-Romano cheese in place of the oregano and Romano in the original recipe.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Oregano and Romano Focaccia

Saturday turned into one of those days. You know the kind. They start out a little shaky to begin with, and then a few things go a little bit wrong, and then, all of a sudden, everything starts to go really wrong, and then you find yourself sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window and shaking your head. Not just a quick shake-it-off kind of headshake, more like a bobblehead kind of thing whereby your head continues to shake side-to-side, wobbling a bit on each revolution.

But maybe you have your own ways of coping.

We have this beautiful, really large bay window in our kitchen where we tucked our over-priced vintage 1950’s dinette set. And now, with two young children and virtually no chance that I will be left alone long enough to sit in my office, I have resorted to parking my laptop on the kitchen table where I can (pretend to) work while keeping the kids (reasonably) happy and the household running (not very) smoothly. I spend a lot of time staring out that window. When I plan the dinner menus, I stare out the window. When I find myself stumped with my work, I stare out the window. If I’m writing and I can’t quite catch the particular word that I’m looking for, I stare out the window. I love that window.

We live out in the country and the view is nice. I can see two birdfeeders, our little frog pond, one of the wind chimes, and a tangled, glorious, woody mess of wisteria vines all from my little perch at the kitchen table. Mostly I watch the birds. The Carnivore has an obsessive habit of hanging and filling birdfeeders and studying which particular brand of birdseed is the preferred dinner of our outside squatters. I was fascinated all winter by the sight of the brightly-hued male cardinals posing on the bare branches and vines in the bleak cold-weather landscape. Now that spring is coming, our lantana is already sending up shoots from the ground and we’ve had our first hummingbird come by to check on its progress.

I didn’t think I was going to take so well to living so far from town. Before we moved here, I had spent the previous six or seven years in an in-town neighborhood within walking distance of campus and downtown. I had been very happy there. Friends dropped by all the time, and we knew all of our neighbors. I could walk to my then-favorite restaurant, and virtually everything I needed was within three square miles. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to move out here to this dirt road.

A lot has changed since then, not the least of which was the addition of two small children to our family. Now I think I would get claustrophobic if I had to live in town with a tiny little yard. And I would sorely miss this view out my dining-nook window. Watching the birds (and those dang birdseed-stealing squirrels) is my therapy. Which brings me back to Saturday…

Like I said, Saturday was one of those days. We got up at the crack of dawn to get The Big Boy ready for his very first soccer game and rushed out of the house at the most annoying hour of eight o’clock only to get to the field and find out that the game had been cancelled. And if you think you know sadness and disappointment, you’ve never seen a four-year-old dressed proudly in his cleats and brand-new team jersey find out that his debut game wasn’t going to happen after all. My heart broke a little bit.

And then, since it was, you know, April 12 (!), and I had put it off long enough, I decided to finally knuckle down and tackle our income tax return. I knew it wasn’t going to do much for my mood, but there was no escaping it any longer. So I handed Little Miss Piggy (the baby that refuses to take naps) to The Carnivore and hunkered down at the kitchen table to wade through the inner circle of hell. Two hours later, I came to the disturbing conclusion that even though we had sent the Infernal Revenue Service umpteen dollars already with our quarterly estimated tax payments, we still owed an additional half-umpteen.

It was not shaping up to be the best of days. I stared morosely out the window for a little while and then, shortly after lunch, thought to check the menu to see what I had planned to cook for dinner. Unbelievably, I had chosen a new and scary recipe for that particular day. How completely and utterly absurd. I was sabotaging myself.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t do bread or bread-like substances. I don’t like working with yeast. And every time I have tried baking said items, I’ve screwed it up. Or, if I haven’t screwed up, I’ve gotten nothing more than satisfactory results after spending an entire day on the project and ending up with a trashed kitchen and dough stuck semi-permanently under my fingernails.

And yet, here I found myself, on an already challenging day, with an unproven recipe for focaccia bread. I didn’t even have a fall-back plan. The entrée was one of my favorite pasta recipes, farfalle with asparagus, roasted shallots and blue cheese, and normally I would serve it with lemon basil bruschetta using one of the bakery breads from Publix. But a few days prior, I had decided that I needed to cease and desist that practice, mostly because I often found myself having to make an extra trip to the store so that we would have fresh bread for dinner. This was going against all my best-laid plans to reduce unnecessary trips to town. That needed to change, which clearly meant I needed to change.

Which meant I had to get over my fear of yeast. And I might not even have aspired to this lofty goal except that Orangette had written in a recent issue of Bon Appetit about her own previous yeast-phobia and how she had faced her fears head on and gotten over them. Clearly, I find her inspiring. Or at least I did on the day that I had planned the menu and done the grocery shopping.

Besides, this recipe didn’t look so difficult. And it used a spoon for mixing, which meant I wouldn’t have to pry the dough out from under my fingernails. So I took a deep breath and got my ingredients together on the kitchen counter and figured that the day had already been ruined, so what was the worst that could happen, right?

I rubbed a large bowl with olive oil, and in a separate bowl, poured in my carefully measured flour. Then I chopped up some fresh oregano and put it in the bowl with the flour, adding the sugar and the salt and the – uh oh – I had failed to purchase enough yeast. I just stood there for a minute, too mad to cry. A normal and well-adjusted woman might have taken this as a sign. She would have dumped the contents of her bowl into a compost bin and moved on with her life. She would have simply made her entrée and done without bread. Or, she would have figured that if she had to go to the store to buy yeast anyway, she may as well just chunk the whole ill-conceived plan, buy some pre-made bakery bread and call it a day.

I am neither normal nor well-adjusted. I dumped the baby in her car seat, snarled at The Carnivore and The Big Boy, who were having a swell time riding around on the lawnmower, and drove to Publix. I marched right past the bakery with nary a glance and picked up another couple of packets of yeast, because now this was personal, you know?

I also got some Ben and Jerry’s. Just in case.

I drove back home and went back to work. There was just no time to waste now. These bread-like substances all require time to rise, and then (inexplicably, I feel) even more time to rise. And then they still have to bake and, for heaven’s sake, we eat pretty dadgum early now that we have young children, so there was NO TIME TO WASTE.

So I followed the directions in the recipe. To. The. Letter. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I was substituting a different cheese in order to use up some of the scraps in the cheese drawer of our fridge, but other than that, I was seriously following instructions. While normally I feel confident enough to improvise, bread-making isn’t one of those instances.

I let the dough rise until doubled in bulk (for real: I literally measured it to be sure), and then I followed the next step, and let it rise again (for precisely the amount of time specified). And then, with much trepidation and hand-wringing, I put it into the oven to bake while I finished cooking our pasta. Twenty-five minutes later, when the bread was “golden brown on top and bottom” as dictated by the recipe, I pulled the bread out of the oven and set it aside to cool for the requisite period of time. Then, because it was killing me, I reached out and broke off a piece to take a little taste. Because I just HAD to know how it had turned out.

Take a wild guess how it turned out. Just a shot in the dark, if you will. I mean, what would you expect after a day like this, right?

But, oh, sweet saints of all that is sainted, it was a success. Something had actually gone right. We loved it. The Big Boy loved it, The Carnivore loved it, The Houseguest loved it. The heavens were smiling down on me.

And, because I just can’t leave well enough alone, this weekend I plan to try a bread recipe that involves actual kneading. Hell hath indeed frozen over.

OREGANO AND ROMANO FOCACCIA (adapted from Vegetarian Times, makes 12 squares)
  • 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, plus more for greasing bowl
  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tbs finely chopped oregano, plus 1 Tbs whole leaves, divided
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbs salt
  • 1 1/4 oz rapid-rise yeast
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
  1. Rub large bowl with olive oil.
  2. In a separate large bowl, combine flour, chopped oregano, sugar, salt, yeast and dried oregano.
  3. To the flour mixture, stir in 1 2/3 cup warm water, and continue to stir for 2 minutes. The original directions say that the dough will seem wet and sticky - mine did not. I agonized over that fact, but it turned out fine. Lesson: do not agonize.
  4. Transfer dough to the other bowl (the greased one), cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.
  5. Line large cookie sheet or jelly roll pan (approximately 11x17 size works well, but an inch or two more or less isn't going to be a big issue) with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray.
  6. Stir cheese into dough.
  7. Transfer dough to baking sheet and spread to sides with wet fingers. Don't get terribly stressed out about this step (like I did). It is perfectly fine if the dough is a little unevenly spread and if it rips in a place or two. Matter of fact, it adds character.
  8. Brush top of dough with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, and sprinkle whole oregano leaves on top.
  9. Let rise one hour
  10. Bake 20 to 25 minutes at 450 degrees, or until top and bottom are golden brown.
  11. Cool for about 15 minutes, unmold from pan, and cut into squares.
  12. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, if desired.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Penne with Caramelized Cauliflower

I try not to be puritanical. Really, I do. I mean, sure, clearly I’m more than a little focused on eating whole foods and obviously I would prefer to shelter my children from high-fructose corn syrup and artificial growth hormones and all of the other processed nonsense that is being packaged to look like food these days, but I'd rather not make a religion out of this.

I’m a realist, though. While I only buy organic milk for my son, I do not panic when we are at someone else’s house and they only have conventional milk. And though I’ve noticed that The Big Boy has his most spectacular temper tantrums after ingesting those bizarre overly-sweetened and brightly-colored children’s drinks, I just don’t have the heart to make him stand to the side and drink water when he is at a gathering in which all the other kids are sharing drinks-in-boxes. The kid is four years old. I don’t want to be one of those mothers, you know?

So I let some things slide every now and then. Against my better judgement, of course.

But see, then I went and read an article on that British study regarding the effects of artificial coloring on the behavior of children and suddenly I find myself considering buying a large bubble in which to raise my children.

Artificial coloring was barely even on my radar until I read this study. I wasn’t crazy about them to begin with, per se, and I have grumbled about it in the past when I have wondered why they were even necessary, but I wasn’t pulling a Michael Pollan about the whole thing either. I mean, I like beautiful colors as much as the next person. Part of the allure of beets and cherries, after all, is their rich and vibrant hue. Heck, my kitchen is red, my last office was painted orange, and nothing can bring a smile to my face quite as quickly as the sight of a giant, nearly-neon sunflower. ‘Course I mostly dress myself in black, but since black is actually created by the presence of all colors, then I feel I can kind of skate by with that one. But I don’t ONLY gravitate toward colorful foods. I adore cauliflower, after all. And my whole-wheat pasta addiction is nothing short of beige. Same goes for potatoes, mushrooms, capers, garbanzo beans and Vidalia onions. Not exactly a rainbow in there.

But why must any food find itself artificially colored? Do natural colors not occur in a large enough quantity? To be sure, after reading about that study, I did what any other paranoid consumer would do: I ripped open the pantry door and started scanning labels. And lo and behold, I came to the abrupt realization that I must have, in fact, become as puritanical as I was trying to avoid becoming, because with the exception of some leftover candy in The Big Boy’s Easter basket, there isn’t a single food item in our pantry or refrigerator with artificial colors. Even The Big Boy’s yogurt, which I had assumed would be at least slightly offensive, contains only organic carrot and black currant juice for color.

I’m not sure whether I should pat myself on the back or enter myself in some support program for people who were raised by hippies.

Since this isn't the best time of year to find fresh, naturally brightly-colored produce, I think it's only fitting that I share my favorite beige recipe for Penne with Caramelized Cauliflower. The flavor combinations are unusual in this dish, and I don't believe I'd ever had a pasta dish in which cauliflower had a starring role, but this has ended up becoming one of our new favorites. Even The Carnivore enjoys it, though I made sure not to mention it's Vegetarian Times provenance until after we'd eaten (I find the carnivorous types to be a little sensitive about liberal vegetarian publications


PENNE WITH CARAMELIZED CAULIFLOWER (adapted from the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of Vegetarian Times, serves 4 or so as an entree)

  • 4 Tbs olive oil, divided
  • 1 head cauliflower (about 1 lb), cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
  • 1 Tbs lemon zest
  • 1 Tbs capers
  • 1 lb whole-wheat penne pasta
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • fresh grated Parmaigano-reggiano
  1. Toss cauliflower with 2 Tbs olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast in a single layer on a baking sheet at 475 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until browned.
  2. Pulse parsley, lemon zest and remaining 2 Tbs olive oil in food processor until chunky sauce is formed. Add capers, and pulse until capers are coarsely chopped.
  3. Cook penne in well-salted boiling water until al dente. Drain, and reserve 1/2 cup cooking water.
  4. Toss pasta with cauliflower, parsley sauce, and red pepper flakes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick.
  5. Top with grated Parm-reg.