Tag Archives: Pasta

Chicken and vegetable baked pasta

The great low-FODMAP experiment continues. Despite talking a big game about cooking, I’m actually a pretty big takeout junkie. Now–curse that garlic!–a lot of my favorite restaurant dishes and prepared foods are suddenly off-limits. So, to satisfy my grab-and-go impulse, I’ve been doubling down on freezer meals.

This has been an opportunity to break out of my (tasty, but repetitive) freezer-cooking rut: beans, soups, stews, chili. A couple weeks ago, I started asking around for recipe ideas, and a friend suggested baked pasta. With a new go-to tomato sauce recipe, it didn’t take long to put two and two together. From the fridge, I gathered a mishmash of cooked chicken, carrots, zucchini, bell pepper, dino kale, and provolone cheese. Together with a pound of brown rice pasta and a batch of homemade tomato sauce, these became one of the most delicious freezer meals I’ve ever made.

I love this just the way I made it: tender zucchini, sweet carrot, barely-wilted greens, tangy provolone cheese, and the occasional nugget of chicken. But baked pasta is perfect for cleaning out the fridge, so think of this recipe as a template. You can swap in another kind of cooked meat, or omit it altogether. Use whatever vegetables you like, or whatever’s in the fridge. In place of the provolone, try mozzarella, cheddar, smoked gouda, or a mix of cheeses–sliced or shredded, it’s up to you. Pretty much the only requirements here are pasta, tomato sauce, and a heap of grated Parmesan.

chicken veggie baked pasta

My lunch today–a pan of pasta, saucy and golden brown, baked straight from the freezer

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Pasta with mizithra and garlic

This is the story of the oddest pasta dish I’ve ever made.

Over the summer, Sam and I took a trip up to Portland and Seattle. While we were in Seattle, we went out to dinner with some friends at a Greek restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, called Plaka Estiatorio. It was a stunning meal–perfectly plump dolmas, crisp and sprightly Greek salad, crunchy fried smelts with their fishy little heads still on, fat orange mussels as big as my thumb. But the dish that really blew us all away was something the menu called Yannis Makaronia.

It arrived piled high in a bowl, with little fuss and less explanation: a tangled mass of spaghetti, each strand lightly coated with crisp brown flecks. The flavors were quite subtle–it was as if the pasta itself were somehow caramelized–but whatever was clinging to the pasta gave it texture, a kind of prickly resistance that felt wonderful on the tongue. It was, as Sam said, “dusted” instead of sauced. We ate and ate until the bowl was empty, and then chattered at each other, trying to figure out exactly we’d just eaten.

As we finished eating, the owner–a twinkly-eyed, gray-haired fellow named Yannis–came over to our table. He sat with us, told jokes, explained where the ingredients in our meal had come from, gave us straws and passed around the mussel bowl so we could drink the aromatic broth. Finally one of us–I think it was our friend Hilary–got up the nerve to ask just what was in that extraordinary pasta. He grinned proudly, sat down, and told us a story.

mizithra pasta 2

He’d first eaten this pasta, he told us, at a restaurant in Athens. He was so impressed that he walked straight into the kitchen and persuaded the chef to show him how to make it. Once he returned to Seattle, he began making it for himself, for lunch, to eat while he was working. One day he brought his lunch out into the dining area and sat down at the bar to eat. A customer asked him about it, and then another, and then another, and before long he was offering tastes to all and sundry. It was a huge hit, and that day he added it to the menu as a special. He had no idea what to call it, so he immodestly named it after himself: Yannis Makaronia. Before long, it became so popular that he promoted it to the regular dinner menu.

Wow, we said. That’s amazing. But how on earth do you make it? He sighed indulgently, leaned forward in his chair as if preparing to give a lesson, and explained:

“You take olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and burn it. Then you take mizithra–you know mizithra? It is a cheese, a Greek cheese. You take it, and you grate it very small. You put that in the pan, with garlic, and you cook it until it turns brown. Then you mix with pasta. That’s it.”

We hung on his every word. Somewhere in that beautifully odd description was the secret to Yannis Makaronia. It seemed to violate every basic cooking principle I knew–burn olive oil? brown garlic? cook grated cheese directly in a hot pan?–and yet he explained it so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. I had no idea how I might replicate his signature dish at home, but I suspected that it all hinged on the cheese: mizithra. And, as it turns out, I was right.

mizithra

As soon as I got home, I started researching. Mizithra (sometimes spelled myzithra) is an unpasteurized goat or sheep cheese. It’s made from whey and then aged with salt, becoming hard, white, and nearly as solid as styrofoam. The flavor is very similar to feta, sharp and salty and animal-funky. And mizithra also shares another quality with feta, a quality that makes Yannis Makaronia possible: it doesn’t melt. It browns. It caramelizes.

After a little searching, I found mizithra at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty cheese shop. I brought home a hunk of cheese, and set about making the pasta just the way Yannis explained. I minced the garlic and grated the cheese, boiled water and cooked the spaghetti. I heated the oil just until the faintest plumes of smoke came off the surface, then dumped in the garlic and cheese and stirred like crazy. It felt so wrong. So weird. So completely counterintuitive. But it worked. It browned like he said it would. It coated the pasta like he said it would. The whole thing came together in less time than it took to grate the cheese. Doggone it, it worked.

In fact, that first time, I was too timid. I didn’t scorch the cheese enough, and the flavor was anemic. The next time I tried it, I made sure to cook the cheese to an even caramel-brown before adding the spaghetti. In less than 15 minutes, I had a bowl of glistening dark-flecked pasta, eerily reminiscent of the one we demolished in Seattle.

Sam says he could eat nothing but this pasta, all day long. I actually like it better as a side dish, served with an assortment of brightly-flavored Greek dishes, the way we ate it in Seattle. And here’s another unexpected and un-pasta-like thing about it: it tastes better at room temperature than it does warm. Every time I make it, I taste it straight from the pan, and am underwhelmed; but after 5 or 10 minutes on a plate, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

So if you’re in Seattle, go visit Yannis and eat his Makaronia. If you’re not, get some mizithra and make it at home. Either way, you’ll never look at a bag of spaghetti the same way again.

mizithra pasta

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Ricotta gnocchi

Every so often, I’ll get together with a friend or two who also like to cook, and spend the day making something elaborate and extravagant. A couple weekends ago, my friend Phuong and her boyfriend came over, and we made gnocchi. And, in the process, I had another breakthrough.

Since this was our first time making gnocchi, we decided to go all out and make two batches: potato and ricotta. It was a long, starchy, floury, methodical process, and we were all dusted with white up to our elbows by the time we were done. After several hours of mixing and rolling and cutting and shaping and simmering–not to mention the sore feet from standing, and stiff arms from crowding four people into one tiny kitchen–we sat down to lunch: piles of dumplings blanketed with rich homemade tomato sauce. We passed a hunk of Parmesan and a grater around the table, and sipped wine from mismatched glasses. It was a solid, homey, nap-inducing meal.

My first discovery was not much of a surprise. As it turns out, I’m just not crazy about potato gnocchi. Even when I make them myself–when they’re delicately handled, coddled like newborns, so light they almost fall apart–I don’t like the way the starch stumbles over my tongue and settles like a brick in my stomach.

The ricotta gnocchi were something else: springy instead of starchy, soft but chewy, with just a whisper of milkiness from the cheese. Blanketed with tomato sauce and showered with cheese, they felt right at home–satisfying in that bone-deep, comfort-food way. We gobbled our portions like maniacs. But yet, as I was eating, I felt odd. It took me until later that day to put my finger on why.

When I first realized as a teenager that food was going to be my albatross, one of the things I mourned most was big bowls of pasta. I’d never even tasted gnocchi at that point, and now they would always be tainted. But, as I was eating those ricotta gnocchi, I felt none of the turmoil I was used to. I knew they were fresh, and made with my own hands, and not especially healthy. And I knew I could finish my portion, and enjoy it, and deal with the gut-rumbles and heavy eyelids that would come later in the afternoon, and then chalk it up as a lesson learned. I wasn’t thinking about gnocchi as a forbidden food, but as a fun and lively indulgence that I’d probably never make again.

That was worth all the hours and the delicate handling. A terrific-tasting batch of gnocchi, and another small weight lifted.

ricotta gnocchi shaped

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Cacio e pepe

Whenever I read another food blogger’s take on cacio e pepe–that is, spaghetti with cheese and black pepper–the rhythm is always the same.  It’s always about how sometimes the simplest dish is the best measure of a cook’s ability.  It’s about how the simplicity of the sauce lets you taste the pasta more fully.  It’s about how the simple ingredients and simple preparation combine to make a lovely, thoroughly Italian plate of pasta.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a simple dish.

It’s also, at least in my world, the classic example of a sometimes food: a little guilt-inducing, best taken in small doses.

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Pasta, sun-dried tomatoes and beans

Let’s get one thing clear, right off the bat.  This is the best dish I’ve made in a while.

It’s cavatappi pasta with cannellini beans, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes.  A bare-bones spin on pasta e fagioli. Ludicrously inexpensive, and nearly idiot-proof to make.  Easy enough for a weeknight, fancy and plentiful enough to serve to guests.

Have I mentioned how fabulous this is?

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Broccoli and feta pasta

Happy Halloween!

This year’s spooky day snuck up on me.  I have no holiday-appropriate post.  No candy, no pumpkin, no orange food, nothing at all about putting on costumes and demanding sugary treats from strangers.

What I do have is tonight’s dinner, which accidentally turned out looking like something you might use in a haunted house to imitate human innards:

That’s Halloween-y, right?

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Roasted tomato pasta with sausage and greens

This meal I’m going to write about was a little rite of passage.  It was the first thing I cooked in my new kitchen, in my very own studio apartment.

When I was a little kid, and making my little-kid list of what Being a Grown-Up might possibly mean, high up on the list was having a living space all to myself.  From the time I was 3 until the day I left for college, I shared a room with my sister.  Never let it be said that I don’t love my sister–if you’re reading this, sistah, I love you–but the everyday grinding closeness, the shattering of any privacy, got under my skin in a big way.

I went to college, and had roommates and dorm-mates.  I graduated and moved back home, then found other roommates.  But this is the first time, ever in my life, that I have really had a complete living space that was 100 percent my own.

I’m so happy I could cry.

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