Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pasta e Fagioli..... yum!

Pasta e fagioli.... according to my very Italian husband Gianluca, 'It is simple and tasty.  I can tell you I've seen business men eating their pasta e fagioli in their suit and tie, just to tell you how good it is.'

Pasta e fagioli translates as 'pasta and beans'.  Sounds pretty boring, huh?  Gianluca proved to me otherwise.  On a whim, I planted borlotti beans in  my garden this summer.  They recently were ready to pick, and my husband declared that it was time to eat pasta e fagioli.  I've heard Italians talking about this dish for years, but I had never encountered it.  It is one of the very few dishes that is ubiquitous in all of Italy, and many refer to it as 'Italy's national dish'. 

Oh. My. Goodness. 

It is fabulous.  Simple, wholesome, and delicious.

Tonight Gianluca walked me though his family's method of cooking pasta e fagioli.  As he said to me tonight when I asked him how he learned the recipe, ' I have expert in my family... there is Paolo!  Paolo is the expert of squishing beans.  It is typical of where we are from.'

So there you have it, and here is how it's made.  If you can find fresh borlotti beans, it is much much better.  I honestly haven't tried it with anything other than fresh beans, so try not-fresh-from-the-garden beans at your own risk!  If you substitute in dried beans, you need to end up with about 2 cups cooked beans, with enough of the water they were cooked in to cover them.  This will be a waste of ingredients if you use canned beans, most likely.  Gianluca says to make sure that I explain that there are many different versions of this dish, and this is his take on it. 

2 cups fresh, shelled borlotti beans (can use other mild tasting beans.  Some regions of Italy use white beans)
6 cups of water
1 1/2 cups dry pasta (spaghetti broken into 1.5 inch pieces, ditalini, or elbow macaroni)
1/2 onion
2-3 cloves garlic
2 carrots
2 sage leaves
2 tomatoes (or one giant one, like I did)
oil for the pan
salt, pepper, marjoram, red pepper flakes

Shell your borlotti beans, put them in a pot along with 1/2 tsp salt, and cover with your 6 cups or so of water.  Boil them until tender... it should take about an hour, but all beans are different so watch them.  If the water evaporates too much, you'll want to add in some more.  Later you will boil your pasta in with the beans and the water, so there needs to be enough to barely cover the pasta. 

Gianluca showing how a real man breaks spaghetti
When the beans are done, take a slotted spoon and scoop a slotted-spoon's worth of beans out of the pot, letting the liquid drain out.  Put the beans in a bowl, and squish with a spoon. 

smashed beans

Chop up your onion, mince the garlic and sage, cut the carrot into small cubes, and cut the tomato into cubes. 

Heat up some oil in a pan, and saute the carrots, onion, and sage over medium flame.  Add in a pinch of salt, some fresh ground pepper, and a pinch of marjoram.  Saute until tender, add in the garlic, and cook for a minute. Add in your squished beans, and stir well. Now add in the tomato , and cook for about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat. 

Bring your beans to a boil, and then add in your pasta.  Gianluca breaks spaghetti up into 1.5-2 inch pieces.  We used a great gluten-free spaghetti that is nearly indistinguishable from the real deal.  Traditionally, 'ditalini' are used, but you can also use elbow macaroni.  Cook for the amount of time your pasta needs to cook, and then when it is done, add in your sauteed veggie mixture and gently stir.  Serve into shallow bowls, top with some nice extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, and fresh ground black pepper.  It is extra delicious sprinkled with some fleur de sel.... not traditional, but great nonetheless. 

Enjoy! Traditionally, it is best with red wine but this version is good with a white wine, as well. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fresh Figs Topped with Bleu d'Aoste, Balsamic & Caramelized Onions

I really need to stop making posts about using seasonal foods right when they are going out of season.  But this is too good to not share!  My excuse is that I was busy eating and creating recipes like the one below, and not writing.

Earlier this summer, I had what felt like a stroke of genius while making homemade pizza.  Caramelized onions, figs, and bleu d'Aoste cheese.  It was unbelievably good, and I recommend trying it.  However, when I took the next step, by combing those ingredients without the pizza and adding in a drizzle of 12 year old balsamic, I knew I found a winner.  Simple, elegant, seasonal, and delicious!  I use 'bleu d'Aoste' made by my neighbors (of the raw milk vending machine fame), and it is mind-blowingly good.  Somewhat strong, but not stinky, and a nice balance of sweetness and 'blue' cheese taste.    This should work with any good quality, sweet blue cheese. 

4 fresh figs
1 yellow onion
pinch of salt
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
a few slices of a good quality, 'sweet' blue cheese like Bleu d'Aoste
good quality, aged balsamic vinegar  

First, caramelize your onions.  This will take 30-40 minutes.  Thinly slice your onion, sprinkle a little bit of salt over it, and let it sit for a few minutes. 

Melt butter in a skillet over low heat, add olive oil, and throw in the onion slices.  Stir often over low heat, so as to not let the onions burn.  This is what the onions will look like as they cook:

Almost done at this point

These are done!

Now slice your figs in half, put a thin slice of blue cheese on the open sides of the figs, and pile a little bit of your caramelized onions on, and drizzle with your balsamic.

Enjoy! This is great as an appetizer for a dinner party.  Or you could just eat a plate of them by yourself.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cornmeal Crusted Zucchini and Tomato Tower

Soon after planting my garden this year, I realized I made a mistake.  Four zucchini plants are far too many for a household of two!  We soon became very sick of zucchini.

That is, until a couple of weeks ago when I came up with a spectacular use of the veggie, inspired by a delicious meal at my favorite local restaurant, La Vrille.  My husband calls it 'The Tower', and requests it for dinner every single night.

It's a tower of pan fried, stone ground cornmeal crusted zucchini and raw tomatoes.  With a lot of thyme.  It is seriously delicious.  It is also extremely quick to prepare, and makes you look fancy. Although I've been making this nearly daily, I haven't measured any of the ingredients, and you don't need to, either.  If you feel like you really need to have measurements, here are some approximations:
1 zucchini
2 tomatoes
1/2 cup stone ground cormeal or polenta
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup milk
2 T olive oil
a few sprigs of fresh thyme for garnish

What you need is a zucchini and a tomato or two, depending on how many towers you want to make.  It is important that the zucchini and the tomato have approximately the same diameter!  This works especially well with large zucchini...but by the time I got around to taking pictures I had used up all my large ones.  You don't want MONSTER zucchini, but ones that are on the large end of edible, before they go all seedy.  This is only worth doing if you have a really nice tomato, as well. 
These are about the same size, even if a bit small.

Thinly slice the zucchini and the tomato.  

 Next you want to make your cornmeal mixture.  I like to use whatever lovely stone ground cornmeal or polenta that I can get my hands on.  It's important that it also has the germ in there, and I don't think this would be worth doing with cheap supermarket cornmeal.   I put some cornmeal in a small bowl, with some salt, pepper, and chopped thyme.  In another bowl, I put the milk.

Heat up two tablespoons of olive oil in a cast iron skillet, on medium flame.   Dunk the zucchini rounds in the milk, and then coat with the cornmeal mixture.  Set them in the heated, oiled pan.

When they start to get golden, with tiny bits of black on the bottoms, flip them.

Cook til golden on both sides, and the zucchini are tender.  Sometimes I splash a little bit of extra oil in the pan when I flip them, so that they get nice and crispy. At this point, put a cooked zucchini round on your plate, then a tomato, then a zucchini, etc, until you reach the desired height.  If you use small diameter veggies, you won't be able to go as high.  Obviously, if you slice them thinner you can get in more layers, as well. I like to sprinkle additional fresh thyme  between all the layers, as well.  And on top.  I do love thyme with zucchini and tomatoes!  It's also delicious with some goat cheese crumbled on top.

Serve hot and enjoy....