farro and pine nut salad

farro tabbouleh 6

It’s a good thing I really like farro, because I accidentally bought 26 dollars worth of it. Apparently I need to pay more attention to the prices on the bulk bins. I should also start enjoying barley or wheat berries or some other equally healthy grain that doesn’t cost $12 per pound. (I actually looked at the prices the next time I was at the store, and farro cost about five times as much as the other grains.)

farro tabbouleh 1

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about farro that I like so much. I don’t think the flavor of the different grains are so different that I notice a big difference once dressing and other ingredients are mixed in, so it must be more textural. It’s all about a balance of the tender and the chewy. Rice is soft and tender. Barley is very chewy. Farro is just right.

farro tabbouleh 3

Usually I mix it with caramelized onions and feta, which, with a squirt of hot sauce, becomes one of my favorite meals that also happens to be incredibly healthy. But having two pounds of farro is good incentive to branch out. There are few things that aren’t improved with the addition of summer vegetables, pine nuts, chickpeas, and a squirt of lemon juice, farro included. It looks like I have another delicious farro meal that also happens to be healthy.

farro tabbouleh 4

One year ago: Grilled Potato and Vegetable Salad
Two years ago: Casatiello
Three years ago: Soba Salad with Feta and Peas

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Farro and Pine Nut Salad (adapted from Self magazine via epicurious)

If you choose a grain other than farro, your cooking time will probably be different.

The original recipe included jalapenos, which is why they’re shown in the photo above, but I decided not to use them.

1 cup farro (or another whole grain, such as wheat berries, barley, or brown rice)
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
¼ cup pine nuts
Juice from 1 lemon
½ small red onion, very thinly sliced
2 large heirloom tomatoes, chopped, or 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 small cucumber, quartered and sliced ⅛-inch thick
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 cup feta, crumbled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Bring 2 quarts of water to a roiling boil; add the farro and 2 teaspoons of salt. Cook for 20 minutes, until the farro is tender but slightly chewy. Drain.

2. Squeeze the juice of the lemon into a large bowl; add the onions and a pinch of salt. Set aside.

3. Heat a small not-nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and toast it, turning once, until browned, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic from the pan. Add the pine nuts to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and slightly browned, 3-4 minutes. Remove from the pan. When the garlic is cool enough to handle, peel and mince it.

4. Stir the drained farro into the onion vinegar mixture, then add the remaining ingredients. Let the salad stand at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before serving.

farro tabbouleh 5

creamy taco mac

creamy taco mac 6

I rarely miss eating meat on weekdays. I was never big on “meat and three” types of meals, so vegetarian food suits me just fine. Besides, it’s usually easy to replace meat with a substitute, and by substitute, I don’t mean fake meat (“smeat”, as my friend calls it). I mean beans, especially black beans.

creamy taco mac 1

Making this recipe vegetarian was no problem, but I was also determined to make it all in the same pot. I’ve made Cooks Illustrated’s Skillet Lasagna many times, in which the pasta is cooked right in the simmering sauce, so I adapted the same cooking method for taco mac. The different ratios of pasta to tomatoes complicated finding the right ratio of liquid to pasta, but after a few tries, I landed on the right amount.

creamy taco mac 2

What really gave me fits was how to make the sauce creamy in a healthy way – and if this was going to be a weeknight dish, it needed to be healthy. First, I tried Cara’s method of stirring in pureed cottage cheese. This worked fine, but I knew I was too lazy to puree cottage cheese for such a simple meal. Both unpureed cottage cheese and ricotta cheese looked curdled and barf-like. In the end, the answer, like it so often is, was Greek yogurt. It perfectly mimics the sour cream called for in the original recipe but with dramatically less fat and more protein.

creamy taco mac 3

Finally then, this fills all my qualifications as a great weeknight dish. It’s vegetarian, it’s healthy, it’s nutritionally balanced – all that and the only dishes you need to dirty are a cutting board, knife, and the cooking pot. With meals as good as this, it’s no wonder I don’t crave meat on weekdays.

creamy taco mac 4

One year ago: Pasta with Asparagus and Goat Cheese
Two years ago: Pork Tenderloin with Rhubarb Sauce
Three years ago: Pigs in a Blanket

Update: I changed the recipe to use ½ more water. Two cups might be enough, but it cuts it close. If your sauce is too liquidy at the end, it’s simple to simmer it down for a few minutes.

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Creamy Taco Mac
(adapted from Delish via Annie’s Eats and from Cook’s Illustrated’s Skillet Lasagna recipe)

6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped small
1 red pepper, chopped small
Table salt
3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon ground chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
16 ounces dry pasta
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2½ cups water
1 (30-ounce) can black beans, drained
1 (7-ounce) container Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons cilantro
1 avocado, diced (optional)

1. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, pepper, and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until the onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and spices and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2. Add the pasta, diced tomatoes with juices, water, and beans. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, about 20 minutes.

3. In a small bowl, stir about half of the simmering pasta mixture into the yogurt. Stir this tempered yogurt into the pasta. Cover and simmer over low heat until heated, 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro and avocado, if using. Serve.

quinoa with salmon, feta, and dill

I imagine that most people have a set of ten, twenty, or maybe even thirty dinners that they regularly make. Some people might try a new recipe every couple of weeks. But for the most part, I suspect that dinner on any given night is something familiar.

Then there are a class of people who have so many recipes they want to try that they know there simply aren’t enough nights in the week, month, year, life. Every time an old favorite is made is an opportunity lost to try something new. Not that I don’t have a rotation; it’s just that meals are considered on the rotation if they’re made only once or twice a year. Something in heavy rotation might be made six or seven times per year.

This was a surprise addition to my rotation. If I didn’t think we’d like it, I wouldn’t have made it, but I didn’t know we’d like it as much as we did. Dave compared it sushi bowls, with the grain base, fish, and cucumbers, but the lemon, dill, and feta take it in a different direction.

Of course, it takes more than good flavor to be added to my rotation – dishes have to be healthy, which means no refined carbs, limited oil and butter, and plenty of protein and vegetables. Recipes also have to be easy if there’s any hope of me making them often, and the limited amount of ingredient prep required here can be accomplished while the quinoa cooks. Not only have I made this three times in the last year, I’ve made it twice in the last month – heavy rotation indeed.

One year ago: Shrimp Burgers
Two years ago: Roasted Baby Artichokes
Three years ago: Double (or Triple) Chocolate Cookies

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Quinoa with Salmon, Feta, and Dill (adapted from Apple a Day)

Serves 6

You can use also fresh salmon and cook it either on the stove or in the oven. Kelsey has directions for stovetop cooking. If you use fresh salmon instead of smoked, increase the salt in the quinoa cooking water to ½ teaspoon.

While you can serve this immediately after mixing, it will be better if you give the flavors some time to meld, even just 15 minutes. This is particularly true if you’re using salty smoked salmon.

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 lemon, juice and zest
8 ounces smoked salmon, chopped small
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ cucumber, quartered lengthwise and sliced ¼-inch thick
½ cup feta cheese, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced

1. Place the quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer; rinse until the water no longer foams. In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the quinoa, salt, and the zest of the lemon. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn the heat off; let the quinoa set, still covered, for another 5 minutes. Drain off any unabsorbed water.

2. Squeeze the juice of the lemon over the quinoa, then mix in the salmon and remaining ingredients. Serve immediately or refrigerate overnight.

Oh yeah, I used red quinoa!  Regular quinoa will work every bit as well though.

pasta with tomatoes, swiss chard, and goat cheese

I think people have the wrong impression about meals around here, particularly on weeknights. The assumption seems to be that someone who loves cooking must be hanging out in the kitchen making elaborate meals every single night. If only.

The reality is that my weeknight evenings are so full of other necessary chores that any meal that takes longer than half an hour stresses me out. A delay in dinner puts me behind schedule for the laundry folding and showering and ultimately ends up cutting into my sleep. And the less sleep I get, the more hateful my alarm is in the morning and the slower I get ready for work and the later I get to work and the later I have to stay at work and the less time I have for cooking the next evening.

Pasta dishes that can be made in the time it takes to boil the pasta are a great option for a quick meal that breaks that cycle.  But the original version of this one wasn’t quite working for me.  I loved the idea of roasting the grape tomatoes before combining them with the other ingredients to accentuate their sweetness.  However, that extra step of heating the oven and throwing in the tomatoes apparently put me over the edge, because I felt vaguely flustered every time I made this.

I needed to simplify it somehow, but I didn’t want to lose that step of concentrating the tomatoes’ flavor.  I love roasted tomatoes, but in this case, where they’re roasted quickly instead of low and slow, it seemed like the stovetop could get the effect right in the same pan used to cook the greens.  In fact, the juice released from the tomatoes helped the chard cook.  With only two dishes, one appliance, and half an hour, this was the perfect weeknight-friendly version of the dish.

One year ago: Artichoke Ravioli
Two years ago:  Cooks Illustrated’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Three years ago: Spinach Feta Pine Nut Tart

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Pasta with Green, Tomatoes and Goat Cheese (adapted from Food and Wine via Savory Spicy Sweet)

1 pound fusilli pasta
2 teaspoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
½ pound swiss chard, rinsed and coarsely chopped
½ pound soft goat cheese, thickly sliced
½ cup walnut halves, toasted
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil, covered, in stockpot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente. Drain and return to stockpot.

2. In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat the oil, garlic, and pepper flakes until the oil flows like water when the pan is tilted. Add the cherry tomatoes, swiss chard, and ¼ teaspoon salt; cover the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally and smashing the tomatoes, until the chard is tender and the tomatoes are soft.

3. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water; drain pasta. Return the pasta to the cooking pot; stir in the goat cheese and ½ cup of the reserved cooking water. Add the chard and tomato mixture, walnuts, and cheese; stir to combine, adding more pasta water to loosen sauce if necessary.

braised white beans with zucchini, tomatoes, and potatoes

Dave tends to have healthier food preferences than me. It was his suggestion that we eat vegetarian or seafood meals on weekdays and save meat for the weekends. My initial efforts to find a vegetarian cookbook that reflected how I liked to cook was years ago, and the pickings then, unlike now, were slim. Back then, most vegetarian cookbooks seemed to tend toward the gourmet end of the spectrum, with lengthy preparations and rare ingredients.

Jeanne Lemlin’s Vegetarian Classics was exactly what I was looking for. Generally, the dishes are quick, based on common ingredients and cooking techniques, and accessible to non-vegetarians. I liked it so much that I bought it for my sister. She’s a busy working mom with no interest in becoming a vegetarian, but I still thought this was a cookbook she’d get a lot of use of.

This recipe is one of my favorites from the book. It fulfills that ultimate trifecta – easy, healthy, delicious. It’s the slightest bit spicy from crushed red pepper, the zucchini is just tender, and the beans and potato soak up all of the garlicky tomato juice. And I have Dave to thank; otherwise, I don’t know that I ever would have searched out a vegetarian cookbook.

One year ago: Roasted Garlic Balsamic White Bean Dip
Two years ago: Honey Yogurt Dip
Three years ago: Apple Galette

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Braised White Beans with Zucchini, Tomatoes, and Potatoes (adapted from Jeanne Lemlin’s Vegetarian Classics)

Serves 2-3

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
¼ cup water
¼ teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
¼ teaspoon salt
1 medium Yukon gold potato, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced into ¼-inch slices
1 (14-ounce) can Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained

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, rosemary, salt, and potatoes. Cook, covered, at a lively simmer for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost cooked through.

2. Mix in the zucchini and beans. 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.

I have blogged about this recipe before, but I felt that a recipe as good as this one deserved a fresh entry.

curry coconut chickpea soup

When my parents brought home a half-grown boxer puppy, I asked them why they got such an ugly dog. With her squashed face, beady eyes, and unproportional torso, she was a far cry from the beautiful German shepherd I’d grown up with. Then we took her out to the backyard to run around and within minutes, I was exclaiming that she was the cutest thing ever! She raced back and forth, eagerly stopping by our sides for head pats. She had no tail to speak of, so instead wagged her entire butt back and forth. What a great dog (except for the drool and the farts). She certainly taught me an important lesson about how it’s what’s inside that really counts.

This soup might look oddly curdled to you, with random chunks of red floating on top. But I know that the mottled look is from sweet rich coconut milk, and the soup is full of healthy tomatoes and red peppers. I know that quinoa adds a bit of crunch to the soup, and chickpeas offer something to chew on.

We gave the boxer puppy an ultra-feminine name, Belle, to counteract some of her less feminine traits. And maybe that’s why this soup has such a descriptive name. Without all of those flavorful ingredients right in the title, how would you have any idea what’s in that suspicious orange-tinted broth? Your first impression might not reflect how good it really is.

(photo taken by my friend Ramie Pierce)

One year ago: Baked Ziti
Two years ago: Herbed Lima Bean Hummus
Three years ago: Maple Walnut Cupcakes

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Coconut Curry Chickpea Soup (adapted from epicurious via Cook, Pray, Love)

Serves 4

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 cup chopped tomatoes, seeded and peeled, fresh or canned
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 (14-ounce) can light coconut milk
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

1. In a medium stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, jalapeno, and a pinch of salt; cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder, and garam masala; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the broth, chickpeas, tomatoes, ½ teaspoon salt, and black pepper; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.

2. Stir in the coconut milk; continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through, about 10 minutes. Garnish with the herbs; serve over rice, couscous, or quinoa, if desired.

I’m submitting this entry to Branny’s Charity Souper Bowl, in which she will donate a dollar to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for each post submitted.

pasta puttanesca

Dave’s been traveling occasionally for work, and every time we say goodbye, I get all, “nooooo, don’t leave me!” and then he’s gone, and I’m like, hey, now I can eat anchovies. Woohoo!

My standard dinner routine for when I’m on my own is pasta puttanesca on weeknights and pissaladiere on the weekend. Both combine Dave’s two least favorite ingredients, olives and anchovies. He doesn’t like such strong flavors – olives with their brine and anchovies with their salt. But if you combine the two, they battle for dominance and neither overpowers the other.

The first time I made puttanesca, I was a little overwhelmed. Looking back, I think I had made an understandable error – I added salt. The anchovies provide all the salt you need for this dish. Then that’s enhanced by bitter parsley and spicy pepper flakes, and everything comes together in a wonderful clash of flavor in your mouth.

One year ago: Asian-Style Chicken Noodle Soup
Two years ago: Pasta with Broccoli, Sausage and Roasted Red Peppers

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Pasta Puttanesca (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves four

I use 12 ounces of pasta instead of 16 ounces; also, I don’t prefer spaghetti with chunky sauces like this.  To increase the protein, sometimes I add 2 cans of solid tuna, drained.

4 medium cloves garlic, minced to a paste or pressed through a press
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
4 teaspoons minced anchovies (about eight fillets)
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, ½ cup juice reserved
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
½ cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped coarse
¼ cup minced fresh parsley leaves

1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Meanwhile, mix the garlic with 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl; set aside. When the water is boiling, add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta; stir to separate the noodles. Immediately heat the oil, garlic mixture, hot red pepper flakes, and anchovies in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.

2. Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, then return the pasta to the pot. Add ¼ cup of the reserved tomato juice and toss to combine.

3. Stir the capers, olives, and parsley into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss to combine, adding more tomato juice to moisten if necessary. Adjust the seasonings with salt to taste and serve immediately.

pasta with brussels sprouts and pine nuts

It sounds plain, doesn’t it? What exactly is offering the flavor here? Is a bowl of carbs, green vegetables and nuts worth eating?

Because there aren’t many ingredients, it’s important to maximize each one. Browning food is key for developing flavor, so that means toasting the nuts and pan-roasting the Brussels sprouts. Plenty of garlic and a pinch of spicy red pepper flakes add another layer of interest. A generous handful of parmesan glues the sauce together, both in texture and taste.

It isn’t much, as you can see. But what it lacks in ingredients – and, therefore, ingredient prep – it makes up for in flavor. It’s a simple dish, but a healthy one that might surprise you by adding up to far more than its individual components hint at.

One year ago: Pizza, Green Tea Crème Brûlée, Herbed Lamb Chops with Pinot Noir Sauce, Soft and Sexy Grits,
Two years ago: Chocolate Truffles (with a chocolate comparison)

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Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Pine Nuts (adapted from Gourmet via epicurious)

4 servings

Please note the very important “reserve a cup of pasta cooking water” step! I sometimes forget, but I’ve found that putting a measuring cup in the colander will remind me to scoop up some water when it’s time to drain the pasta.

If you have bacon fat (or better yet, pancetta fat, which is what I used) available, I highly recommend it. Because there aren’t a lot of ingredients here, the more flavorful each one is, the better. If that sounds too rich for your blood, using olive oil certainly won’t spoil your dish. One tablespoon will be enough if you’re being stingy, but you’ll have better browning of the sprouts with two.

Pasta dishes like this don’t have a high heat capacity. To keep dinner warm until I’m finished eating, I like to warm the serving bowls in the oven while the pasta is cooking.

12 ounces pasta (rotini or another open short shape)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces (¼ cup) pine nuts
24 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
1-2 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or bacon fat
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup water
juice of 1 lemon
2 ounces (1 cup) freshly grated parmesan

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. When it boils, add a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook according to the package directions. Drain, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, heat a 12-inch not-nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the nuts; cook and stir until fragrant and lightly toasted, 1-2 minutes. Transfer to nuts to a small bowl; set aside.

3. Add the fat to the now-empty skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the Brussels sprouts and a big pinch of salt; cook without stirring for 2 minutes. Stir; repeat the cooking and stirring twice more, for a total of 6 minutes. Push the sprouts to the edge of the pan and add the garlic and pepper flakes to the cleared center; cook and stir constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir into the sprouts.

4. Add the water to the pan; immediately cover and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Remove the lid, scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and let any remaining liquid evaporate.

5. Add the drained pasta, Brussels sprouts mixture, lemon juice, and ½ cup of pasta cooking water to the pot the pasta was cooked in. Stirring continuously, sprinkle the parmesan over the pasta, adding more pasta cooking water if necessary to keep the mixture from drying out. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary; serve immediately, preferably in warmed bowls.

classic burritos

This is not my most gourmet meal. It’s mostly fancy Taco Bell. It kind of looks like dog food. It’s delicious and easy and kinda healthy. I like it.

It’s at least fancier than we made it when I was a kid. Back then, we (usually my brother) browned some ground beef, dumped in a packet of burrito seasoning and some water, and stirred in a can of refried beans. Then we glopped it on tortillas with fixin’s and were happy.

Then my brother started getting creative. He would add green chile to the mix or use shredded chicken instead of ground beef. I don’t like change. I just want my fancy Taco Bell.

What I have changed is to get rid of the sodium and preservative-filled spice packet and the pasty canned refried beans for some good stuff – browned onions, fresh garlic, spices that I already have anyway, and pinto beans I mush up myself. Plus I use ground turkey instead of ground beef, because it tastes the same once it’s mixed in with everything else, and it’s a little healthier. Same goes for Greek yogurt instead of sour cream.

Sure, it’s just a regular old burrito, and it costs 79 cents at a fast food chain. But if you make it yourself, you can use high quality ingredients – lettuce that is actually crisp, cheese that has flavor, spices that are fresh – and it isn’t much harder than going through the drive-thru.

One year ago: Bran Muffins
Two years ago: Spinach Artichoke and Red Pepper Strata

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Classic Burritos

4-6 servings

The filling also reheats really well, so I usually make enough for more than one meal and have an easy leftover night a few days later.

These are my favorite fillings for these very basic burritos. Obviously you can go wild here with whatever you like – salsa, hot sauce, green chile, guacamole…

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chile powder
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 pound ground turkey (or other ground meat of your choice)
1 teaspoon salt
1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup water

flour tortillas
green leaf lettuce, sliced
tomatoes, diced
cheddar cheese, shredded
black olives, chopped
sour cream (or Greek yogurt)

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until just browned around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the spices and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute, until fragrant. Add the meat and salt and cook, stirring occasionally to break up large chunks, until no longer pink. Clear a space in the middle of the pan and add the beans to it; use a potato masher to break up the beans slightly. Stir in the water and simmer over medium heat until the liquid mostly evaporates. Serve the filling with toppings of your choice.

penne alla vodka

People keep asking me how my recent vacation was, and I can’t think of any response other “so, so good.” How else do you sum up a week of playing in the waves, drinking margaritas, snorkeling, baking cookies, swimming with sea lions, watching shooting stars, eating shrimp tacos, and just basically everything that is good. I didn’t even get sunburned. I want to go back.

At least I had an easy meal planned for my first night at home. This is my ‘just got back from vacation’ dish. After traveling all day, I don’t want to spend much time cooking. There’s no time to defrost anything. We haven’t been home, so there isn’t a lot of fresh food around. I’ve been eating out all week on vacation, so I don’t want to get takeout.

This dish solves all those problems. It takes as long to make as it takes pasta to cook. There are only a couple ingredients to chop. It’s fairly healthy. And it uses ingredients that I can buy before I leave and trust that they’ll keep until I get back – pasta, canned tomatoes, onion. And of course, it tastes great.

I bet it would taste even better on vacation. Everything is better on vacation.

One year ago: Potato Tomato Tart
Two years ago: Banana Coconut Muffins

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Penne alla Vodka (from Cooks Illustrated)

You can never go wrong following a Cooks Illustrated recipe precisely. I, however, don’t, in this case. Because I almost always make this after a day of traveling, I simplify it wherever possible. Instead of pureeing half of the tomatoes and dicing the rest, I simply stick a pair of kitchen shears in the tomato can and snip away. I don’t separate the liquid and the tomatoes in order to measure a certain amount; I just pour all of the liquid in to the sauce. I like to use 2 shallots instead of half an onion. If I don’t have cream, I use milk. If I don’t have milk, I skip the dairy. If I don’t have basil, I use parsley. If I don’t have parsley, I skip the herbs or use dried. It’s tomatoes, pasta, and alcohol; it isn’t going to be bad.

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained, liquid reserved
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ small onion, minced (about ¼ cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
¼-½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
table salt
⅓ cup vodka
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
fresh parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Puree half of the tomatoes in a food processor until smooth. Dice the remaining tomatoes into ½-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine the pureed and diced tomatoes in a liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1⅔ cups). Add reserved tomato liquid to equal 2 cups.

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are light golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vodka. Return the pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol flavor is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower the heat to medium if the simmering becomes too vigorous. Stir in the cream and cook until hot, about 1 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain the pasta, reserving ¼ cup cooking water, and transfer the pasta back to the Dutch oven. Add the sauce to the pasta and toss over medium heat until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in the basil and adjust the seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls and serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.