Pomodoro Perfecto

I appreciate the beautiful and simple notion that in Italian cooking, the same four or five ingredients get remixed into completely different dishes based entirely on subtle changes in preparation.

One of the key ingredients in the Italian food lexicon — and often the most misunderstood — is garlic. Allium sativum, a small, pungent relative of the onion, radically changes its flavor profile based on how you slice it (or press it or crush it) and then does so again based on cooking methods, temperatures and timing. A clove of garlic roasted in foil for 20-30 minutes at 400° while still in its bulb makes a mild and sweet spread for crustini (or a decadent treat when blended into mashed potatoes) while a thinly sliced one releases savory tones when charbroiled atop fish. A teaspoon of pressed garlic gently simmered in olive oil for just a few seconds before forcing it too cool can flavor an entire pot of red sauce whereas that same teaspoon of pressed garlic, if overcooked, will leave your food inedible and your dinner guests wondering why they didn’t just go to Olive Garden. (On the plus side, vampires will also keep their distance.)

Pomodoro-in-progress! The color will darken and the tomatoes will disintegrate as it cooks down
Pomodoro-in-progress! The color will darken and the tomatoes will disintegrate as it cooks down

As it turns out, mastering this press-and-sautée method of cooking garlic is really all you need to do to make a great pomodoro, the most basic of Italian sauces — yet probably also the easiest to screw up. Like anything, good garlic management skills improve with practice. As your nose gets more attuned to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in the smells released by cooking it, you’ll soon master when to cool the garlic by adding tomatoes — or when to throw everything away and start over.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 large clove of garlic, pressed

1 can of crushed tomatoes, opened (or you can use blanched, skinned and blended fresh tomatoes and maybe a tablespoon of tomato paste, but it never makes sense for me to do this from a cost/benefit perspective)

1 t dried oregano

3 large fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 pinch of crushed red pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Before doing anything else, open the can of tomatoes

This sounds ridiculous, but it’s super important because the last thing you want to do is run around looking for your can opener while you’re overcooking the garlic. (Yes, I’ve done that. More than once.) So open the darn can and just set it down right next to your sauce pot. (You can thank me later.)

Now chop the basil, press the garlic and get ready for the fun part

Heat the olive oil in the pot under medium-low heat for about a minute. It will start to become less viscous, so you can tilt the pan and allow it to pool on one side. Confirm that your can of tomatoes is open and nearby and ready to reach with one hand while you hold a wooden spoon with the other. Meet our dear Lucy, canine epicurePlace the pressed garlic on the wooden spoon and carefully add it to the pool of hot oil, stirring constantly. The garlic will sizzle a lot at first as it releases liquids, then it will quickly start to brown and give off all sorts of wonderful smells. (Our beloved family dog would come running down two flights of stairs the moment she smelled garlic cooking in olive oil, then she would put her snout as close to the range as possible without getting burned, just to take it all in.)

There’s a critical apex reached — once the garlic has released all of its “good” flavors and smells — when suddenly it starts to turn dark brown and produce rancid, nauseating odors that will ruin anything in their path. If that happens, pour everything into your compost pile and cover it with food-soiled paper or scraps to contain the smell. Then open the windows, clean the pot thoroughly with soap and water and start over.

With garlic, it’s okay to error on the side of not-yet-done but it’s never okay to error on the side of OVERdone.

At the critical moment, usually no more than 10-20 seconds in, grab that can of tomatoes and smother the garlic and olive oil by quickly adding the contents, then stir to normalize the temperature of the tomatoes, oil and perfectly-cooked garlic. (You’ll probably get some tomato on yourself in the process. I usually do.)

The rest is easy: Add all the other ingredients, stir them in and simmer on low for at least 30 minutes, up to 2 hours (or more if you add water). Stir the sauce every ten minutes or so to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom and burning, which is another great way to ruin your pomodoro. (If any of the sauce burns, the whole pot of sauce is ruined and needs to be composted.)

Serve pomodoro in a million different ways: over penne or spaghetti, on pizza, on stuffed peppers or zucchini, inside (or on the side of) a calzone, as dipping sauce for anything fritti, etc.

Serving suggestion! Risotto stuffed peppers topped with pomodoro and mozzarella
Serving suggestion! Risotto-stuffed peppers topped with pomodoro and mozzarella

Whatever you do, just do the garlic right and everything will turn out well. Even the vampires will like it.

Osso Buco Pappardelle

I’ve loved osso buco since I first discovered it in Milan 15 years ago. Traditionally made from veal shanks, the name translates roughly to “bone hole,” which I suspect refers to the tender meat falling off the bone after a long, slow braising.

This one tastes as good or better than it looks
This one tastes as good or better than it looks

Over the holidays, I enjoyed this dish over pappardelle (a sumptuous noodle about two times the width of fettuccini) in an Italian restaurant in Montclair, NJ, where amazing Italian food seems to grow on trees. I recreated it using pork shoulder, since I don’t feel particularly good about using veal.

Yield

3-4 servings

Ingredients

1 cut of pork shoulder (10-12oz)

1 T olive oil

2 C mirepoix (diced onion, carrots and celery)

3 C chicken stock

12oz dry red wine (or a nice hoppy beer)

1 t dried oregano

1 bay leaf

Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper (to taste)

1 lb dry pappardelle

Instructions

Optionally, salt the pork shoulder using a Himalayan salt block (or your own method).

Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet. Sear the pork shoulder on high heat for two minutes on each side, then set aside in a dutch oven or slow cooker.

Add the mirepoix to the pan, reduce heat to medium and sautée until tender and brownish (4-5 minutes), adding more olive oil if necessary. Remove the vegetables and toss on top of the pork shoulder. Deglaze the pan with wine (or beer) and bring the liquid to a boil, then bring the heat to low and simmer until reduced by about half.

Now pour the wine/beer reduction and the stock into to the slow cooker or dutch oven, tossing in the oregano and bay leaf. The liquid and veggies should cover the pork shoulder completely.

Set the slow cooker to high, cover and cook for 3-4 hours. If you’re using a dutch oven, cover and cook in a conventional oven for 2-3 hours at 350°

To check for doneness, scrape the meat gently with a fork. If it falls off the bone, it’s ready.

Cook the pasta to al dente following package instructions. Toss the pasta with the veggies and some of the remaining liquids and meat. Plate each dish with the pasta, then a nice chunk of pork, some shaved parmesan, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper.

Traditionally, Italians top this dish with gremolata, but I feel the strong flavors stand on their own and don’t really require it.

Braised Escarole

You’ve probably never heard of escarole — and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m always on the hunt for it, but it’s very hard to find in supermarkets, even at farmers’ markets. In this day and age, it sometimes gets served raw in hipster salads, but my family’s been serving it for years (if not centuries) cooked in chicken or ham-based soups and also as an amazing standalone side dish.

This tastes better than it looks, I assure you
This tastes better than it looks, I assure you

Known as a slightly bitter green, sautéing escarole releases a buttery texture and flavor that counteracts the bite. Optionally braising in chicken or pork stock further tempers the bitterness of this somewhat rare leafy green vegetable.

Ingredients

1 head escarole with leaves left whole, but separated from one another and washed

1 T olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced or shaven

1/2 C of chicken or pork stock

Instructions

Warm the olive oil over medium heat in a stainless-steel saucepan and then add the escarole, taking care not to splash water into the oil. Cook the leaves in the oil, covered, for 2-3 minutes, until they’re tender and dark green.

Now, push all the leaves to one side of the saucepan and collect the oil in the other side, adding more oil to create a little pool for the garlic. Reduce the heat to medium low and add the garlic to the pool of olive oil, cooking only until fragrant — but never crispy, brown or smelly. Just as that garlic is reaching its flavor climax, turn off the heat and mix the garlic into the escarole vigorously to cool the garlic and stop it from cooking.

Serve immediately, or, optionally, add the stock, turn the range up to high, bring the stock to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Cover the saucepan and allow the escarole leaves to braise for 10-15 minutes (or until most of the stock has evaporated).

Pasta con Sarde

This is my family’s take on the classic Sardinian delicacy, featuring sustainably-sourced Wild Planet sardines from the California coastline. The sweet-savory blend of fish, saffron, currants and pine nuts suggests a sophistication that hides the fact that this dish takes fewer than 15 minutes to make.

Photo credit: Allison Bucchere
Photo credit: Allison Bucchere

Ingredients

1 lb dry Buccatini (or Edison Quinoa Penne for a delicious gluten-free option)

4 T extra virgin olive oil

1 medium fennel bulb, diced, with fronds removed and reserved for garnish

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

1 T tomato paste

1/2 C pine nuts

1/4 C currants

A pinch of saffron threads

1 package of Wild Planet sardines in oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Boil water for the pasta first, with a goal of having the sauce ready just before you drain it.

While the water warms, sauté the fennel and onion in the olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until brown and tender. Reduce the heat to low and add all the other ingredients, adding more olive oil if things are drying out too much. (Don’t forget to cook the pasta once the water comes to a boil.) Using a wooden spoon, mash up the sardines and mix everything together in the skillet to coat the fennel and onions.

When the pasta is nice and al dente, drain (but do not rinse) then add to the skillet and stir to coat with the sauce. Serve in shallow bowls with a garnish of fennel fronds and without parmesan cheese.

DIY Açaí Bowl

For years I’ve been enjoying these tasty concoctions (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) at Cafe Brasil in Santa Cruz and at Surfdog’s Java Hut in Encinitas. I’m also looking forward to trying the many different versions at Mana Bowls in Fairfax. But today, I just wanted one for breakfast. At home. In a pinch.

I took this one myself. Can you believe it?
I took this one myself. Can you believe it?

As fate would have it, we had everything I needed in the freezer, including these great Sambazon açaí berry packs you can find at your local health food store (a.k.a. Good Earth). I thicken up the berry mixture with banana and Manitoba Harvest Hemp 50 powder, packing in 15 grams of plant-based protein.

For me, this breakfast is a four hour hunger-killer — a great meal to have before a long surf session or trail run.

Yield

2 servings (2 bowls)

Ingredients

2 sleeves frozen Sambazon Açaí berries (sold 4 sleeves to a pack)

2 frozen bananas

1 cup frozen blueberries

3–5 frozen dark cherries (add more for richness)

8 T hemp powder

2 C almond milk

1 C granola

1 fresh banana, peeled and sliced into medallions

A small handful of fresh berries

2 t honey (to taste)

A few sprinkles of unsweetened coconut (optional)

Instructions

Place all the frozen ingredients, the hemp powder and the almond milk into a powerful blender and blend on high until smooth.

Fill two bowls in this order, dividing everything up into halves:

  1. 1/2 the granola (~1/4 C)
  2. blended açaí mixture
  3. the rest of the granola (~1/4 C)
  4. banana medallions
  5. fresh berries
  6. honey
  7. coconut (optional)

As you eat this, you’ll realize that you’re going to have a great day. And if you don’t, it definitely wasn’t the açaí bowl’s fault.

Classic Pesto

Pesto — a zesty northern Italian vegetarian sauce — can be customized in innumerable ways. The basil can be replaced with spinach, arugula, kale, or cilantro; the pine nuts subbed with hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, etc.; and the pecorino romano switched with literally any hard, dry cheese with a high salt content.

Trofie al Pesto
Photo credit: Edwin Garrubbo

However, whenever I tweak this dish, I’m left longing for the original. This is the recipe that’s been passed down through the generations in my family.

Where pesto was born, in Liguria (the northwest coast of Italy), they serve it atop trofie, a little “twist” of pasta that is said to capture just the right amount of pesto for each bite. I’ve found fusilli to be a pretty good — if not entirely authentic — substitute.

Yield

4-6 servings

Ingredients

6-8oz of basil, washed and stems removed (about three bunches)

4oz of whole pecorino romano cheese

1/3 to 1/2 C pine nuts (more for a richer sauce)

2 T olive oil

~1/4 C milk (more if necessary, note: the Nonna uses heavy cream)

1 small clove of garlic, peeled

Salt and pepper to taste

A pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)

1 lb dry trofie (or fusilli)

Instructions

Traditionally, Ligurians made pesto with a mortar and pestle, but I just throw everything but the milk in the blender or food processor until it’s pulverized and then add just enough milk to make it take on a sauce-like consistency.

(If you’re feeling ambitious, you can add a smoky flavor by toasting the pine nuts lightly on low heat in a pan, then allowing them to cool before adding to the mixture. If you over-toast the pine nuts, they turn rancid and need to be thrown away, so this is a perfectly good way to waste a really expensive ingredient. YMMV.)

Cook your pasta al dente (as there is no other way) and then drain (but do not rinse) and toss with the pesto while the pasta is still hot. Serve immediately.

If you’re not serving the pesto immediately, place it in an airtight container, cover tightly with plastic wrap, then seal the lid. Air contamination will cause the pesto to turn brown. It will still taste fine, but no one will want to eat it. (You might get away with sneaking it onto a sandwich, again, YMMV.)

Dirt-simple Hummus

In the mood for a quick snack? Looking for something light yet packed with protein and healthy fats? Pressed for time? This recipe is for you. 

Photo credit: http://themuffinmyth.wordpress.com
Photo credit: http://themuffinmyth.wordpress.com

Ingredients

1 can garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained

the juice of one lemon

1 small clove garlic, peeled

1-2 T sesame tahini (more for a richer hummus, less for a healthier one)

1 T olive oil, more for garnish

salt and pepper to taste

1/4-1/2 a jalepeño (optional, optionally roasted)

generous pinch of sumac

Instructions

Throw everything into a food processor or a powerful blender and blend until smooth. Serve with crudités or these lovely lemon pita chips

Green Bean Casserole, Rebooted

Chris Bucchere: Green Bean Casserole, Rebooted
Exactly once a year, around Thanksgiving, I get a craving for that classic green bean and cream-of-mushroom side dish topped with fried onion rings. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the holiday feast — but it’s made with far-from-perfect ingredients: frozen french-cut beans, Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup and Heinz crispy onions. In other words, a processed food nightmare.

This holiday, I’ve tried rebooting this old recipe so my family and I can enjoy this dish without supporting the industrial agriculture juggernaut and subjecting ourselves to known carcinogens in our food.

This dish is far too yummy to remain stuck in the 70s. Give a try with and without the optional “secret ingredient” — the Point Reyes blue cheese — and let me know what you think!

Ingredients

1 Lb fresh green beans, ends removed, cut into bite-size pieces

1 large onion, diced

About a dozen Cremini mushrooms, sliced

1 T olive oil

2 t dried thyme

3 T flour

2 T butter

Approximately 1 C of 2% milk

1 oz Point Reyes blue cheese (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 C panko breadcrumbs

1/2 C raw dehydrated onions (look for them at Whole Foods)

Instructions

Steam the green beans to al dente in lightly salted water, about 5 minutes. (My grandfather would let the water cool a bit and then drink it like a tea/health tonic. It’s really good — and loaded with nutrients exuded by the beans when they’re cooking.)

Meanwhile, sautée the onions and mushrooms in 1 T of olive oil until tender and lightly browned, adding thyme plus salt and pepper to taste.

Toss the green beans with the onions and mushrooms in a casserole dish and set aside.

Now create a roux with the butter and flour over low heat and slowly add the milk until you have smooth sauce-like consistency. Optionally, add the blue cheese and allow it to melt into the sauce. Add more milk if the mixture gets too thick. When satisfied with the sauce, pour it over the green beans, mushrooms and onions and stir to coat.

Top with breadcrumbs and dehydrated onions and bake for 10-15 minutes at 325° until the sauce bubbles and the onions on top start to crisp up. Allow to cool for five minutes before serving.

Guiltless Pumpkin Pie

I modified my mother’s classic pumpkin pie recipe to remove all the dairy, sugar and fat (except for the fats naturally occurring in the eggs). It can be made completely guiltless if you bake it as a soufflé in ramekins, but it gets better — albeit more carb-ey and fatty — if you add a bottom-layer of pie crust.

30175_easy_pumpkin_pie
Photo credit: chowhound.com

Yield

1 pie (8 servings)

Ingredients

1.5 C cooked pumpkin

1 C almond milk

2 eggs

1/4 C yacón, agave or maple syrup (more if needed)

1 T ground cinnamon

1 t vanilla extract

1/2 t fresh ginger, grated

1/2 t ground cloves

1/4 t ground allspice

1 pie crust (optional)

Instructions

While it’s fine to use canned pumpkin in a pinch, I prefer to start with a whole sugar pie pumpkin. Preheat the oven to 400° and place the pumpkin, washed, upright in a jellyroll pan filled 2/3 full with water. IMPORTANT: Stab the pumpkin all the way through from the top with a knife several times so that it doesn’t explode in the oven.

Roast the pumpkin at 400° for about an hour, then remove and allow to cool to the touch. Remove all the seeds, stringy parts and the skin and then you’re ready to use the remaining pumpkin flesh for this recipe.

Preheat the oven to 425°

Now comes this easy part: dump everything into a blender and blend on a high for 60 seconds. At this point, I test the mixture for sweetness and add more yacón, agave or maple syrup and re-blend if it doesn’t seem sweet enough.

Pour the mixture into eight ramekins or a pie dish (optionally lining with raw pie crust if you desire).

If you used crust, line the edges with foil so that they don’t burn. Bake at 425° for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 275° and bake for another 35-45 minutes — until a knife poked in the center comes out clean. If you used ramekins, start testing them with a knife at 25-30 minutes as they require less cook time.