salmon pesto pasta

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This is Dave’s most-requested meal, and it’s gotten to the point where I purposefully don’t make it so that it will always be a treat. Yeah, I’m a bad wife. Also, I think making pesto is sort of a pain in this ass. Back in the old days, before I took over the kitchen and we actually cooked together on occasion, Dave would prepare the fish while I worked on the pesto. Over time, I tweaked the recipe here and there without writing it down, and it became easier to just do it myself. And now I complain that Dave doesn’t like to cook with me…

Updated photo 5/27

I’ve found that if I allow my life to be easy and just buy pesto, this recipe is actually a quick weeknight-appropriate meal. We’re picky about pesto, but I’ve found that my grocery store stocks some good stuff in their olive bar. But…this was for Dave’s birthday, so I went all out and made it from scratch.

(Wait a minute…wasn’t Dave’s birthday last month? Yes yes, the problem is, I didn’t like the picture I took of the final dish, so I wanted to make it again and hope for a better picture. I made it again last weekend, but the pictures from that night aren’t any better, so I’m sticking with the original. Sorry the colors are all funky. We eat dinner at night. There’s no natural light at night. My pictures of dinner tend be funky colors.)

I am, of course, a big fan of my homemade pesto. My trick (okay, Cooks Illustrated’s trick that I stole) is to squeeze the maximum amount of flavor out of each ingredient. I toast the pine nuts, I toast the garlic so that it loses that sharpness that raw garlic has, and I bruise the basil leaves. Before I did all this, I would often end up with grassy-smelling pesto, but now I make basily-smelling pesto. Gotta love that.

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The salmon, brushed with oil and sprinkled with lemon zest, is broiled. The sauce is made from evaporated milk that’s boiled to reduce it even further. The pasta is mixed with the milk, then the salmon, and finally, off the heat to preserve the basil’s delicate flavor (Marcella Hazan is getting to me), the pesto is stirred in. Top with a little more parmesan, and you’ve got my and Dave’s favorite way to eat salmon. And Dave’s favorite way to eat pesto…and pasta…

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Salmon Pesto Pasta (substantially adapted from the Pillsbury Complete Cookbook)

Serves 2

8 ounces pasta
12 ounces salmon
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
5 ounces evaporated milk
½ cup pesto (recipe follows)
grated parmesan, for serving

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When water is boiling, add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta; stir to separate pasta. Cook pasta until al dente; drain. Pour evaporated milk into empty pot and simmer over medium-high heat until reduced to ¼ cup. Add cooked pasta to pot and stir to combine.

2. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat broiler. Line a baking sheet or pan with aluminum foil. Season skinless side of salmon liberally with salt and pepper, sprinkle with zest, then rub with olive oil. Broil until salmon is no longer translucent and is firm when pressed, about 10 minutes. Remove from broiler and sprinkle with lemon juice. Use fork to flake into bite-sized pieces. Skin will stick to foil and can be discarded.

3. Add salmon to pasta mixture and stir over medium heat until hot. Remove from heat and stir in basil. Top with parmesan.

Pesto (adapted from Cooks Illustrated)

Bridget note: I haven’t found a good way to measure basil leaves by volume. I just add all of the leaves from a hydroponic basil plant or a large herb container from the grocery store.

CI note: Basil usually darkens in homemade pesto, but you can boost the green color a little by adding the optional parsley.

Update 6/18/08 – After flipping through Jamie’s Dinners, I have found a far easier and just as effective method for bruising the basil leaves.  Simply add the unbruised basil leaves to the food processor bowl and process with the plastic dough hook until they’re thoroughly bruised.  Switch back to the blade and continue with the recipe as written.

Makes ½ cup

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted (or substitute almonds or walnuts)
5 medium cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed thoroughly
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, Italian (optional)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch table salt
¼ cup (½ ounce) finely grated Parmesan cheese

1. Toast nuts in small heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just golden and fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the nuts to bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade.

2. Add the unpeeled garlic to empty skillet and toast until, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and the color of the cloves deepens slightly, about 7 minutes. Let the garlic cool, then peel and add to food processor bowl.

3. Place basil and parsley in heavy-duty, quart-size, zipper-lock bag; pound with flat side of meat pounder until all leaves are bruised.

4. Process nuts and garlic until finely chopped. Add remaining ingredients except cheese; process until smooth, stopping as necessary to scrape down bowl with flexible spatula.

5. Transfer mixture to small bowl, stir in cheese(s) and adjust salt. (Can be covered with a sheet of plastic wrap placed directly over the surface or filmed with oil and refrigerated up to 5 days.)

can’t deepfry on a wednesday (fish tacos)

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For Dave’s birthday, my parents took us out to eat at a brewery. Everyone loved the beer they ordered (except for my 8-month pregnant sister, who had to settle for soda), but I think I was the only one who enjoyed their food. Oh, and I did enjoy my food. Rarely do I finish my entire meal at a restaurant, but my shrimp tacos were too good to waste.

The shrimp was battered and fried, served with the classic shredded cabbage and aioli. I’ve made fish tacos before using a similar method, a beer batter, and they were fantastic. But…today is Wednesday, and deep-frying on a weeknight just seems irresponsible. I don’t generally shy away from fat, and I’d rather eat less of great food, than larger quantities of “reduced-fat” versions, but this time, I was ready to compromise. And after smearing everything with mayonnaise, how low-fat is this anyway?

So, I skipped the batter on the fish, and instead pan-fried it in just a slick of oil. Really, so much of the charm of this meal comes from the cabbage, mayonnaise, lime, and cilantro (not usually one of my favorites, but it has its place) that I didn’t miss the deep-fried goodness at all. In fact, I’ve decided that I’ll never bother deep-frying fish for fish tacos again. This was easier, cleaner, healthier, and just as tasty!

Weeknight Fish Tacos (adapted from my brother’s recipe)
Serves 2

I used large tortillas, because that’s all I had on hand, so this is what the picture shows. However, small tortillas actually work better. Also, I didn’t have red onions, so I used green onions.

Other possible toppings include avocado, green chile, and hot sauce.

I have tried substituting plain yogurt for the sour cream to make this even healthier, and it turned out great.

2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for oiling pan
¼ cup minced cilantro
¼ teaspoon cumin
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ – 3/4 pound tilapia, or other white fish (halibut, cod, catfish, snapper)
salt
4 ounces (¼ – ½ head) cabbage, finely shredded
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
6-8 small flour tortillas
White sauce (recipe follows)

White sauce:
1½ tablespoon minced cilantro
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 tablespoon lime juice

1. Mix lime juice, 2 tablespoons olive oil, cilantro, and cumin in large, flat bowl or pie plate. Add fish and turn to coat. Let marinate 15-30 minutes.

2. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add marinated fish and cook, without moving, for 3 minutes. Using 2 spatulas, flip fish and cook on second side for 2 minutes, or until fish flakes with a fork. Remove fish from pan to plate, season with salt, and let set for 2-3 minutes. Cut into approximately bite-size pieces.

3. To build each taco, spread liberal amount of white sauce on tortilla, then add fish, cabbage, red onion, and whatever garnishes you desire. Serve.

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prepping and chopping and prepping… (pad thai)

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I always seem to fool myself into thinking that pad thai is a good weeknight meal. Then I’ll get home from work and start prepping ingredients, and then I’m prepping and prepping and finally asking Dave to help because I’ve been in the kitchen over half an hour and I haven’t even started cooking yet. Fortunately, once the cooking starts, it only takes 10 minutes or so. That short cooking time is what always tricks me into making this on a weeknight.

One of the most difficult tasks with making pad thai is finding at least some of the authentic ingredients. I love tamarind, and I’m always disappointed when I order pad thai in a restaurant and find that they’ve skipped the tamarind. Tamarind is sold in several forms – the whole pods, the pulp of the pods, and a liquid concentrate. I use the pulp. If you really can’t find any, a mixture of lime juice and water can do in a pinch.

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Pad thai has so many freakin’ ingredients, which is the only reason it takes a while to prepare. Another of my favorites, that might be hard to find, is dried shrimp. Mmm…like shrimp jerkey, so salty and good. I tried salted radish and absolutely hated it. Definitely a textural issue. I’ve seen recipes that called for salted cabbage instead of salted radish, so I want to try that too.

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There are so many ingredients, and the cooking happens so fast, that I have to line up all of the ingredients in the order that they’re cooked, so I don‘t have to look at the recipe at all. Sometimes I have Dave read the recipe to me as I stand over the stove doing the fun part.

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Ah, but pad thai is so worth all the chopping and prep work. It’s so good – and healthy!

Pad Thai (from Cooks Illustrated – no adaptations)
Serves 4 as a main dish

Although pad thai cooks very quickly, the ingredient list is long, and everything must be prepared and within easy reach at the stovetop when you begin cooking. For maximum efficiency, use the time during which the tamarind and noodles soak to prepare the other ingredients. Tofu is a good and common addition to pad thai. If you like, add 4 ounces of extra-firm tofu or pressed tofu (available in Asian markets) cut into ½-inch cubes (about 1 cup) to the noodles along with the bean sprouts.

If you’re using tamarind concentrate instead of pulp, mix 1 tablespoon with 2/3 cup hot water. If you can’t find any tamarind, mix 1/3 cup of water with 1/3 cup of lime juice; replace granulated sugar with brown sugar. Do not serve this version with lime wedges.

2 tablespoons tamarind paste or substitute
¾ cup water (boiling)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
8 ounces dried rice stick noodles, about 1/8 inch wide (the width of linguine)
2 large eggs
¼ teaspoon table salt
12 ounces medium shrimp (31/35 count), peeled and deveined, if desired
3 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press or minced (1 tablespoon)
1 medium shallot, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, chopped fine (optional)
2 tablespoons Thai salted preserved radish (optional)
6 tablespoons chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
3 cups bean sprouts (6 ounces)
5 medium scallions, green parts only, sliced thin on sharp bias
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves (optional)
lime wedges

1. Soak tamarind paste in 3/4 cup boiling water for about 10 minutes, then push it through a mesh strainer to remove the seeds and fibers and extract as much pulp as possible. Stir fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, cayenne, and 2 tablespoons oil into tamarind liquid and set aside.

2. Cover rice sticks with hot tap water in large bowl; soak until softened, pliable, and limp but not fully tender, about 20 minutes. Drain noodles and set aside. Beat eggs and 1/8 teaspoon salt in small bowl; set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat until just beginning to smoke, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp and sprinkle with remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt; cook, tossing occasionally, until shrimp are opaque and browned about the edges, about 3 minutes. Transfer shrimp to plate and set aside.

4. Off heat, add remaining tablespoon oil to skillet and swirl to coat; add garlic and shallot, set skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until light golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes; add eggs to skillet and stir vigorously with wooden spoon until scrambled and barely moist, about 20 seconds. Add noodles, dried shrimp, and salted radish (if using) to eggs; toss with 2 wooden spoons to combine. Pour fish sauce mixture over noodles, increase heat to high, and cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are evenly coated. Scatter 1/4 cup peanuts, bean sprouts, all but 1/4 cup scallions, and cooked shrimp over noodles; continue to cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are tender, about 2 1/2 minutes (if not yet tender add 2 tablespoons water to skillet and continue to cook until tender).

5. Transfer noodles to serving platter, sprinkle with remaining scallions, 2 tablespoons peanuts, and cilantro; serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately.

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a handful of vagueness (pasta with meyer lemon, creme fraiche, and parmesan)

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My next Meyer lemon experiment was a savory recipe from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte. This is the type of recipe that drives me crazy – a handful of this and a few handfuls of that. Seriously? I don’t see anything wrong giving exact measurements – of course everyone adjusts recipes to their own tastes, but you want to at least give your readers a starting point. Especially when you say something like “quickly fold in the ingredients, adding more to taste.” I’m supposed to fold, taste, fold, taste, fold, when I’m in a hurry?

Anyway. Somewhere along the line when I was reading about Meyer lemons, I read that one reason that their availability is often limited is that they aren’t as hardy as regular lemons. Apparently, this is true. I bought the lemons on Saturday and figured I had plenty of time to use them, but by Tuesday, they weren’t looking so hot, so I rushed to use them that day.

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This recipe involved another new ingredient for me – crème fraiche. Pretty good stuff. Kind of like mellow sour cream.

Not only are the ingredient amounts basically useless, but the method for this recipe didn’t really work either. Hesser instructs the reader to grate “a handful” of parmesan cheese into a bowl along with some lemon zest, then add “three handfuls” of arugula. (Grr.) The cooked pasta is added to the bowl, then the crème fraiche and some of the pasta cooking water is stirred in. The problem is that the hot pasta melted the cheese into clumps, and I couldn’t get them to melt into a smooth sauce. The lemon zest clumped with the parmesan clumps, so there really wasn’t an even distribution of flavors.

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All that being said, the recipe has lots of potential. The flavors were good, although I needed more arugula, more parmesan (of course!), and more zest. And, unlike with the lemon bars, I think the Meyer lemons may be important to the recipe. I’m actually hesitant to try it with regular lemons, although it’s probably worth the experiment. It’s a great weeknight meal, because all of the other ingredients can be prepared while the pasta is cooking. Just don’t expect Hesser’s recipe to help you along at all!

Pasta with Meyer lemon, crème fraiche, and parmesan (adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte)
Serves 4

The amounts listed for each ingredient are loosely based on Hesser’s recipe. However, it is expected that your personal tastes may vary and you may want to adjust the quantities accordingly.

1 pound pasta (any shape)
salt
3 ounces arugula, chopped
zest from 2 lemons
juice from 2 lemons
½ cup crème fraiche
½ ounce parmesan cheese, grated
ground black pepper

1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the water.

2. Mix hot pasta with remaining ingredients, making sure to add cheese after crème fraiche to avoid clumps. Stir in reserved water if pasta is sticky. Serve in heated pasta bowls.

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a healthy choice (braised white beans with potatoes and vegetables)

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You know those days after you’ve eaten nothing but crap when you just feel heavy and unpleasant? Usually they happen after a vacation or maybe just a particularly decadent weekend. This is my go-to meal for those days.

My parents recently visited, and it was four days of mostly eating out. Waffles for breakfast, pizza for lunch, a big plate of sausage and potatoes for dinner. Yikes. I may not generally be a vegetable-lover, but days like that make me crave something healthy.

And this meal is perfect for that. It has lots of tomatoes, garlic, and zucchini, plenty of beans, and just a bit of starch in the form of red potatoes.

Not only is it healthy, but it’s quick and forgiving as well. After a bit of chopping, there isn’t much to do except give the occasional stir while everything simmers together into deliciousness. At the end, the flavors of garlic and crushed red pepper permeate the sauce, the zucchini is softened but not mushy, and the beans and potatoes have soaked up the tomato-ey juices. This is one of my favorite ways to be healthy!

Braised White Beans with Tomatoes, Zucchini, and Garlic
(adapted from Vegetarian Classics, by Jeanne Lemlin)
Serves 2 (plus leftovers)

I’ve taken to drizzling a bit of extra-virgin olive oil over everything right before serving.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (14-ounce) can ready-cut diced tomatoes
¼ cup water
1 medium boiling potato (red or Yukon gold), cut into ¼-inch dice
1 zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced into ¼-inch slices (the size I buy depends on how healthy I want to be)
1 (14-ounce) cans small white beans, such as Great Northern or navy, rinsed well in a strainer
¼ teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
¼ teaspoon salt

1. Heat the oil, garlic, and red pepper in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook for about 30 seconds after the garlic begins to sizzle. (It should not become at all colored). Stir in the tomatoes, water, and potatoes, and cover the pan. Cook at a lively simmer for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost cooked through.

2. Mix in the zucchini, beans, rosemary, and salt. Cover the pan again and cook, stirring often, 10 minutes more, or until the zucchini and potatoes are tender. At this point check the consistency of the sauce; it should be thick and soupy, not dry or watery. Add a bit of water if the mixture doesn’t have much sauce; cook it uncovered if the juices seem watery. Serve in large pasta bowls, preferably, or on plates.