Friday, October 26, 2012

Everything's Better with Bacon!

If you’re a frequent reader of this column, you know that I am a big fan of Mark Bittman.  For those who aren’t familiar with him, he’s a food columnist for the New York Times, and in several previous columns I’ve referred to some of his work.  One of my favorites came from a 2009 column “101 Simple Salads for the Season.”  Here were his instructions: “Cut cherry or grape tomatoes in half; toss with soy sauce, a bit of dark sesame oil and basil or cilantro.”  I’ve made that so many times it is almost embarrassing.
A couple of weeks ago, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, he offered 25 ways to cook with bacon, in much the same format. One, simply listed as “Spanish style,” involved cherry tomatoes and a touch of Spanish pimento (smoked paprika).  I made it once, adding my own touches to it, and loved it so much I invited friends for dinner just so I’d have an excuse to make it again.
Mr. Bittman suggested it be topped with toasted bread crumbs. I used it as a pasta sauce, rather than a side dish and topped it with grated cheese. Of course I had to add garlic, and at the end, I thought it needed a touch of color so I added a handful of arugula and let it wilt a bit.               
                The first time, I used linguine, but the chunkiness of the sauce called out for a chunkier pasta. Cavatappi, fusilli, penne, rigatoni, all would work better than long skinny pasta.
                A green salad is all you need to make this a meal you’ll be proud to serve to your friends.
 Mark Bittman’s Spanish Bacon Sauce
 12 oz. good smoky bacon (see note)
1 pint grape tomatoes
3 plump cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 can chickpeas, drained
A large handful arugula
2 tsp Spanish smoked paprika
12 oz. chunky pasta
Grated pecorino romano, for garnish
               Cut the bacon crosswise into 1/2” pieces.  In a large heavy skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat, stirring often, until just barely crisp.  Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.  Add the tomatoes to the pan and cook without stirring, until the bottom side is browned.  This is the time to use a splatter screen if you have it; the tomatoes tend to pop and splatter. Once one side is brown, shake the pan a couple of times so the tomatoes roll around in the pan juices.  Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds. Add the chickpeas.  You can do this to this point a little ahead, then reheat when the pasta is done and you’re ready to serve.
Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted water. Follow the package directions for the proper length of time for al dente pasta. Reserve a cup of the cooking water, drain and return to the hot pan.               Add about a half cup of the cooking water, the arugula and smoked paprika to the pan and warm through. Return the bacon to the pan.  Add a little more of the pasta water if you think it needs it. Add to the pasta, toss to combine. Turn into a well-warmed bowl and serve immediately. Pass the cheese at the table.  Serves four as a main course, or six as an Italian style first course pasta.
NOTE: I used Benton’s bacon, which is a very delicious, very smoky bacon from East Tennessee.  You can now find Benton’s bacon at Lucchesi’s, on Sanderlin.
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Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Salad for the Season

                 Going through some of my old cooking class files, I came across a recipe for a North African roasted red bell pepper dip.  I hadn’t made it in ages, but I remembered loving it.  We had guests coming for dinner that night, and although I didn’t need an appetizer, I did want to make a salad.               
               This time of year it’s sometimes difficult to come up with seasonally appropriate salad ideas.   I tend to do a lot of roasted vegetables: butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower—all easily available and easy to work with.

                I had roasted cauliflower and thought the red pepper dip recipe would make a great base for a dressing, and that’s what we had.
                This is very light and relatively low fat, but still very flavorful. It would make a perfect first course for a “bigger” main course, such as steak or pork roast. 
                If you wanted to serve this as a luncheon or supper main course, grilled or broiled shrimp would be a quite tasty addition.  If you like, you could sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese for an even heartier version.
                I used half a jalapeño pepper, removing the seeds and veins. If you want a spicier dressing, you can use the veins and seeds, and more of the pepper. 
North African Roasted Cauliflower Salad

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
Olive oil cooking spray
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 2-inch square cube of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
½ small jalapeño pepper, seeds and veins removed, chopped
¼ cup onion, chopped
1 7-ounce jar roasted red bell peppers
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil
2 heads romaine lettuce, cut crosswise into 1” strips
½ red onion, very thinly sliced
16 pitted Kalamata olives
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)

                Preheat oven to 400.  On a baking sheet, spread the cauliflower in one layer and spray with olive oil cooking spray.  (Or brush lightly with olive oil.)  Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Roast until crisp-tender, about 20 minutes.  Let cool.
                Mix the garlic, ginger, pepper and onion in a small bowl. With the motor running, drop the mixture down the feed tube of a food processor. Scrape down the sides and add the roasted peppers, vinegar and mustard.  Pulse several times to combine. With the processor running, drizzle in the oil.  You can use the dressing immediately, or cover and chill until ready to use.
                To assemble the salad, divide the lettuce among four plates.  Top with the cauliflower. Garnish with the red onion and olives.  Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of dressing over each salad, and sprinkle with feta cheese if you’re using it.  Serves four.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Lamb-Stuffed Zucchini--Greek Style

                We may be heading to fall, but there is still a wealth of fresh veggies to be found at the farmers’ markets around Memphis. This past week, I found the cutest round zucchini and knew I had to stuff them with something.
                A spiced rice stuffing is sort of standard, and certainly makes a delicious side dish for roasted or grilled meats, but I had friends coming for dinner and wanted to make them into a main course.
                I picked up some ground lamb, not quite sure what direction I was going but wound up using Greek-inspired seasonings. They were perfect.  I baked them on a bed of lightly seasoned diced fresh tomato, but you could easily use canned diced tomatoes instead. And of course, those adorable round zucchini don’t show up every day, but this would be equally successful with good sized long zucchini, so I've given the instructions assuming that's what you'll use.
                 I know there are lots of folks who think they don't like lamb.  I don't understand it but I know it's true.  So if you are one of those folks, do this with lean ground beef and you're still going to love it.
                I served the stuffed zucchini with rice pilaf and a green salad, and it made a lovely casual dinner.

Greek-Inspired Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

6 medium zucchini
1 lb. lean ground lamb
2 green onions, with about 2” of the green part, finely chopped
2 or 3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced
1 tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3 cups ripe fresh tomato, cored and diced (see note)
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ cup dry red wine
Salt and pepper

                Preheat oven to 375o.
Scrub the zucchini. Cut a slice about ¼” thick along the length. Using a melon baller or small spoon, hollow out the center, leaving a shell ¼” thick.  Chop the sliced-off tops and the center and reserve. 
                In a bowl, mix together the reserved chopped zucchini, lamb, green onion, garlic, herbs, cilantro, parsley, 1 tsp salt and ½ tsp pepper.  Use this mixture to stuff the zucchini.
                In a shallow casserole just large enough to hold the zucchini in one layer, spread the tomato chunks evenly. Sprinkle with the garlic, drizzle on the wine and season lightly with salt and pepper. Top with the zucchini and cover loosely with foil.
                Bake for 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake until the top is browned and the lamb is done through, 10 to 15 minutes more.  To serve, spoon some of the tomato on each plate and top with the zucchini.  Makes 6 servings.

NOTE: Tomatoes are still growing in Memphis, but won't be for long. Instead of fresh tomato, two 15-ounce cans of diced tomato with garlic, including the juices, can be used.