My Pretty Apron: Che vuole mangiare?

A tavola non si invecchia.- Italian proverb. Translation: At the table with good friends and family, you do not become old.

Buona sera readers! For this week’s ‘my pretty apron’ post I decided to look back at one my of my most memorable culinary experiences. I had the great fortune to study abroad in Rome for a semester while I was at Penn and it was incredible. It was four months of observing some of the finest art in the world, city-hopping and hostels , and of course EATING. The Italians know how to live it up, and there’s no better way to see this than through their food culture and cuisine. I mean, who hasn’t had some form of Italian food? And what’s one of the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking Italian food? PIZZA. Ha, well of course…but what’s the second thing that comes to mind? Pasta!

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve all had pasta at some point in our lives. I’m from New York where Italian food is kind of it’s own basic food group. My family always had a jar of sauce in the fridge and several boxes of dried pasta in the cupboard.  If it was a day my mom didn’t want to cook a big meal, we’d get some variation of pasta-night. I say ‘variation’ because I grew up in a Latino household and my parents didn’t really get red sauce by itself. You had to have onions and peppers and some kind of achiote and sure, why not add some cilantro and pieces of fried Dominican salami while you’re at it?! Oh yes, Dominican pasta.

So when I set off to Rome, I felt that I kind of knew Italian food. I mean, it’s pasta and pizza right? Our first week we got a quick crash course on Italian cuisine with a demonstration and that was interesting and all, but I’m thinking, “yeah ok buddy, I get it I get it. Don’t burn the garlic, salt the water, blah. Let’s get on to the hard stuff.  Where’s the tiramisu??” And then I went to the supermarket for the first time. Um, hello, where’s the Ragu? Or Prego? Or anything that has the basil and garlic and onions ALREADY in the sauce?? Did I miss something? Well, I picked up something that looked like jarred sauce, took it home, and got to work. All was good until I took a bite and gagged. And that was my first lesson in Italian cuisine and the beauty of cooking simply with fresh ingredients. Which is really at the heart of Italian cooking. They don’t do jarred sauces. You make your own. From tomatoes. What a revelation!

And so, here I am with my pretty pink apron to make a simple pasta dish with homemade tomato sauce in less than 45 minutes. That’s right. Might be longer than picking up that jar of Classico, twisting the top, and pouring, but where’s the beauty in that? Plus, do I need to talk about preservatives here?? Come on, time to challenge ourselves here to eat clean and fresh!

You might be thinking that pasta is not the healthiest thing to be eating. Or that carbs are the devil. Let’s just address that last point here because it drives me nuts when I hear these anti-carb arguments. I’m of the opinion that any ‘diet’ which recommends you completely cut out any 1 of the 3 major nutrients that keep us alive and healthy (those nutrients being protein, fat, and carbs) is absolutely INSANE. Your body is a complicated machine that relies on a number of complicated internal systems and processes that are managed in large part by the nutrients we consume. I can proceed to talk about carbs and glucose and sugar levels….but that’s a whole other post for another time. The point to clean eating is to stick to natural as much as possible and being smarter about our food choices. And that’s what this pasta dish is all about!

Speaking of pasta, this is where you have to be smart. The market has been flooded with so many varieties of multi-grain, whole-grain, whole wheat (both blends and 100%), gluten-free, and vegetable pastas alongside the regular pastas that are considerably higher in carbs. The healthier pasta options, such as whole wheat, are made from whole wheat flour which is ground from the whole grain containing the bran, germ and endosperm which are the most nutritious parts of wheat. This produces a pasta that is higher in fiber and contains more vitamins and minerals than your traditional pasta made from duram or semolina flour. Gluten-free pasta is usually made from buckwheat and is another great alternative for those who have gluten allergies.

I usually go for a whole-grain blend that is about a 50/50 split between regular and wheat flour pasta. I decided to go for something a bit different this time around.  I bought Delallo’s Organic 100% whole wheat Capellini. It was a bit pricier for me, at around $3.39 in Whole Foods but since I’m just cooking for myself here, I figure it will stretch out for awhile. That’s one of the lovely things about pasta. It’s so wallet-friendly and you can really do anything with it and have it last. As for pasta shapes, there are dozens. Dozens of dozens. And each go well with different types of sauces depending on how hearty you go, if you’re baking, using a cream sauce, etc. My favorites tend to be capellini, penne, rotini, or farfalle.

This Week’s Recipe

Ok, now onto the recipe! As with last time, I found a recipe and adapted it to my tastes and what was available, which is something I highly encourage you to do as well! Even now as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, “man, I should’ve added spinach!” but it’s something I can use for a different day.

Cooking Light’s Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic was my inspiration this week.  (recipe can be found here: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/pasta-roasted-tomatoes-50400000122474/)

Here are my ingredients:

My Alterations:

I didn’t change a whole lot from this recipe. I didn’t need to! Again, Italian cooking at its best is when the focus is on the 2 or 3 ingredients that dominate the dish. And those ingredients will dominate if they are fresh and sourced as local as possible. In this case, the showcase ingredients were the tomatoes, basil and garlic. Tomatoes are absolute all-stars because they’re packed with Vitamin A and C, and lycopenes which are natural antioxidants that help promote skin health. I went with heirloom cherry tomatoes as opposed to a plum or San Marzano which will give you that beautiful hearty tomato sauce that you’re familiar with. Why heirloom? It’s the end of summer and now’s the time to get your fill of the prettiest heirlooms you can find before they’re gone. These heirlooms came from a farm in New Jersey and they were delicious!

Note on the garlic: always go fresh. Garlic costs close to nothing and it’s pumps the flavor up in anything when you’re using it fresh. Which means don’t get the jarred pre-chopped garlic. It’s really not that difficult to cut it into thin slices. All you need is a sharp knife and patience. Or get a mandolin if you really can’t deal.

Note on the basil: again, fresh is better. Now this isn’t always possible. It’s not in season year-round and might be hard to find. But it’s summer, which means no excuses. Basil was EVERYWHERE I looked. I actually grow my own. I started doing this about 2 years ago and I replace them every 4-6 months to keep it fresh. Since I use so much of it in my cooking, I figured I could just buy potted basil and plant it myself. Not only does it save me money but it’s great to just pop over to the windowsill, clip some leaves, and throw them in my dish. Plus it smells so nice!

Let’s get to cooking! Not a whole lot of action here. Take the pasta and put in boiling water* that’s lightly salted. What do I mean by lightly? Like a dash. I use kosher salt too so the grains are bigger and the flavor is more intense. Don’t oversalt!

*Whenever you’re cooking pasta you should always wait until the water is boiling before you add in the pasta! If you add it before it boils, it increases your cooking time AND can lead to mushy pasta. Yuck!

Now, we roast the tomatoes! Again, not a whole lot of work. Mix the garlic and tomatoes together with 1tbsp of EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) and then pour onto a jelly roll pan or rimmed cookie sheet:

Bake at 450 degrees F or until the tomatoes start to pop. Note that roasting vegetables will always bring out those natural flavors in a more concentrated way. Anytime you want to boost the taste in a dish, just make those vegetables sing in the oven by roasting them first. You’ll thank me later.

Now look at these beauties!

See, how the juices just sort of ooze out and mix with the garlic?? This is a great base for a sauce, especially with a lighter capellini pasta. Now here’s the fun part: mixing it all together!

Once you’ve cooked the pasta through, strain it in a colander but remember to preserve some of that cooking liquid! That  starchy water is going to help thicken up your sauce plus the salt will help flavor the pasta. Also, remember not to overcook the pasta. ‘Al dente’ literally means ‘to the tooth’ so your pasta should still be firm when you take a bite. Capellini cooks pretty quickly (another reason I love it!) so after about 3 mins it was done.

Note that I’m grating the cheese here. That’s right. It’s a block of parmigiano reggiano that I’m grating, not that white powder stuff that you shake out of a bottle. Sure, it’s expensive. Especially if you buy it imported from Italy, which I do. But it’s SO worth the investment. Bagged cheese that’s pre-shredded is loaded with salt and I find that it has a weird taste to it. With fresh parmigiano reggiano (imagine I’m saying that like Giada does on Food Network, lol), you can taste the nuttiness of the cheese and it just melts onto your dish when its freshly grated. A small block lasts me a good 3-4 months depending on how much I’m using so I have no problem choosing quality over cost here.

And now for the grand finale. Presto!

Pretty, light, filling, and delicious! PLUS super-quick and easy to make. I think that checks off all my musts for my clean-eating exercise. I made extra which means I have dinner here for another day or I can share this with a friend.  I have an impossible time measuring out pasta but it’s never an issue because it can always be stretched out one way or another.

As we head into fall, I can’t help but wonder how this simple pasta dish can be adapted to all the wonderful fall produce headed into the markets. You can add butternut squash, kale or broccoli rabe, eggplant, or even sweet potatoes. Just pick 2 or 3 vegetables to be the headliners in your pasta and keep it simple, but most importantly, keep it fresh and clean.

Until next time, happy eating! Ciao! 🙂

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