Tag Archives: Pasta

Summer in SF Means Sugo

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It was 55 F last night at 6:00 pm and the fog was blowing hard. My kitchen was steamy and this made me happy. I was making a batch of Naples-style sugo for dinner later in the week and the aromas were spilling out into the hallway, torturing my neighbors. Sugo, for those of you who don’t have Italian relatives, neighbors or lovers, is the Italian word for gravy or shorthand for their hearty, meat-filled pasta sauce.

My late ex used to make his sugo twice a year for parties, which were much beloved by his family and friends. We would make up 3′ tall pots of his sugo and then freeze tubs of it for those nights we didn’t feel like cooking but wanted a bowl of heaven. I haven’t made it since he passed away and, although I thought about this a great deal, I just didn’t have the heart to pull out my notes.  They were notes of dinners we made, recipes we created, his family recipes, my family recipes, and drawings by his daughter.  I have three notebooks full of our food diaries, hiding in my bookcase.  But it has been quite a few years and I had a lot of large cuts of meat in the freezer that needed cooking, and it’s “summer” and I wanted sugo.  Ecola, the time is now.

His recipe contained a lot of ground meat and meatballs but his brother would often make it with large pieces of meet from the game he harvested and other goodies.  I pulled out the 4 pound pork neck I had in the freezer, some sausages and goat chops and also a pound of Roma tomatoes that I made last summer, the most ripe tomatoes bursting with juice, peeled and roasted slowly to concentrate their juices. With my cutting board mounded with ingredients I whipped on an apron and got started.

I browned off the meats in my largest cast iron Dutch oven with some grapeseed oil until they were richly browned, then added some butter before adding the vegetables. This was Marc’s secret to his sugo, lots of butter! I had an enormous onion, several carrots and some cloves of garlic which sauteed until they were soft. Then I added the thawed roasted tomatoes and about half of bottle of this amazing Cabernet Franc from Murrietta’s Well. It was probably too good to cook with but it tasted amazing and I knew the smooth richness of the wine would marry well with the meats. I had another tin of San Marzano tomatoes that I squeezed between my hands to crush and added some herbs – rosemary, sage, crushed chiles and California bay laurel, and a few handfuls of porchini, a gift from Anna. I snuggled the seared meats into the rich sauce and added a bit of chicken broth to fill up the enormous casserole and let it slow cook in my oven for hours.

Every once in a while I stirred up the pot and turned over the pork neck and added a bit more water to keep the liquids up above the meats. It smelled divine and I tried unsuccessfully not to burn my hands when I removed the heavy cast iron lid off my pot. The meats were so tender and falling off the bone but still sweetly juicy. The sauce was thick and dark with caramelized flavor from the long, slow cooking and an intensity from the wonderful wine.

I removed the meats to a separate bowl to cool and ladled out the sauce to a large bowl and set them by the window opened a touch to blow cool fog over them, nature’s air conditioning put to work!

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the chopped meats

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the sugo after a purée

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the finished sauce, ready for dinner

Tonight when I got home I roughly puréed the sauce, added a touch more butter and some vermouth and the chopped meats and cooked up some pasta. I can’t wait to tuck into a steamy bowl with lashings of grated cheese on top, snuggled into the corner of my settee and watch the fog blow by.

Making this sugo is a little bit like reclaiming my past life and forging ahead with new memories. The 7 quarts of sauce will last me quite a while and I will gift some to some friends so that they can have a little sugo love this chilly summer.

Recipe to follow

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Playing with Pistou

One of my favorite things to make in the spring is a vegetable soup with a dollop of pistou, a country French type of pesto using tomato, garlic, basil and cheese.

Pistou is a zap of flavor, a bold hit of color and a zing to the tastebuds and an essential part of the spring menu.

This spring, however, my ability to use the mortar and pestle was out of whack, and so was using a knife so I had to miss my annual ritual. However, this summer, it has finally warmed up enough in the outlying boroughs to permit ripening of tomatoes. Yay! Tomatoes!

My CSA box has been overflowing with tomatoes and yesterday I was pondering what to make for dinner that would be simple and help me use up my bounty.  I thought of pistou over pasta.   And, given I am still not up to mortar work, I thought of making pistou in my food processor.

My dinner was ready in 10 minutes and it was fantastic.

I had the great luxury to use some incredible local goat cheese from Achadinha Farm.  Donna Pacheco is an incredible craftsman and her aged goat cheese is heady stuff. I was lucky enough to catch the staff at their stall at the end of the day and since they were packing up I got a tiny deal on a nice wedge of Capricious.  It’s interesting stuff, contrary to intuition you are not supposed to refrigerate it!  I like using it in lieu of Parmesan or serve it in rough chunks on a cheese plate or grated over vegetables or eggs.  It’s a little luxury.


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(keep the Capricious in waxed paper on the counter – not in the fridge!)

But last night I decided to get splurgy and use it in my pistou and I think I will never use Parmesan again.

Although using a food processor and aged goat cheese are quite non-traditional for a pistou I can heartily endorse their use.

While the pasta water was heating, I peeled some garlic and minced in the food processor.  Then, I added a cup of the Capricious cheese, broken into small chunks and pulsed until the cheese was well ground.  Next in went a medium-zized bunch of basil and when it was smoothly ground I tossed in a small tomato.  The processor whizzed away turning the normal pesto-green ingredients into an incredible sunset hue.  My tomato was a pink/golden heirloom variety and I added it “seeds, peel and all”.   After scraping the bowl and adding a bit of salt and pepper I thinned out the pistou with a small slug of olive oil and, voila! Pistou in 2 minutes.

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I dressed the drained spaghetti with the pistou and let it heat gently in the saucepan to mellow the raw garlic a little.   Mounded in a warm bowl the pasta coated with pistou glowed with warmth and flavor.  I perched on my chair and slurped away and watched Casablanca feeling rather content with life.

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HAL’s Pistou

5 cloves of garlic
1/2 c Parmesan or other aged dry cheese (I used Capricious by Achadinha in Marin)
1 bunch of basil (or 2 cups packed leaves)
1 small tomato
1/2 tsp salt or to taste (depending upon how salty the cheese is)
a few grinds of black pepper
2 T extra virgin olive oil

In a food processor, blend the garlic, then add the cheese and pulse until smooth.  Add the basil and pulse until the leaves are finely pureed. With the motor running add the tomato and puree until smooth.  Taste for salt and add if needed, add pepper.  With the machine running add olive oil to make a loose paste, like the consistency of jam or sour cream.

Serve in vegetable soups, dressed over cooked pasta, spread on bread in lieu of mayonnaise or drizzled over cooked vegetables.

Makes approximately one cup

(printer friendly recipe)

Mac’n Cheese Blowout

Plate #1

Last year sometime over a haze of bourbon on ice and pimento cheese G___ and I were extolling the joys of mac’n cheese and the conversation grew to jovial boasting.

“My mother’s mac’n cheese is the best ever, you know.”

“Oh really, *my* mac’n cheese is the best I have ever had, and you know I’m picky.”

“Well, I don’t like to say, but *my* mac’n cheese is even better than my mother’s!”

The gauntlet was down and we toasted each other merrily.

For months we discussed that we needed to have a mac’n cheese throwdown, or at the very least a dinner where we made excessive amounts of mac’n cheese and had lots of people over to consume it.

A year plus later we finally scheduled the date and last weekend that date was upon us.

G___ very kindly offered to do all of the shopping and our guests were confirmed to arrive at 4:00 pm.  I arrived around Noonish, apron in hand along with a few special secret ingredients, and by 1:00 pm the kitchen was steamy and redolent with cheese.

We had a “grate” time, or, I should say, we grated and grated mounds and mounds of cheese:

  • Tillamook sharp cheddar
  • Smoked fontina
  • Gouda
  • Amish blue cheese
  • Cabot sharp white cheddar
  • Longhorn cheddar
  • Laura Chenel goat
  • Gruyere
  • Extra sharp aged cheddar

I prepared my mother’s béchamel.  This béchamel is quite special and I wrote about it previously.  One essential step necessary to its successful preparation is to sing to the sauce while it is being stirred.

“Bechamel, béchamel mucho….”, I crooned and gave the wooden spoon a spin, “each time you cling to my spoon I taste cheese divine…”
(My apologies to Consuelo Velasquez.)
My béchamel

G___ made two versions of mac’n cheese, and I also made two versions:

In addition, and to be fair to our childhood memories, we also made Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese and Annie’s Natural Mac & Cheese, purely as a control group.

Our menu was rounded out by a lovely sliced tomato salad with goat cheese crumbles and balsamic vinaigrette, and an abundant green salad with spiced walnuts and feta.
Picnik collage

So back to the kitchen…

The buffet table was laden with casseroles and the dry pasta so that we knew the destination for each batch.

My béchamel finally had simmered and was sung to enough and the mounds of delicious cheese were folded in, pots of boiling water and melting butter bubbled on stove.
Pots bubbling away

Panko breadcrumbs were tossed with various concoctions and the parsley was chopped.  A pot of custard was prepared and more bowls were filled with grated cheese.  I burned my hand and my first aid was ice (externally) and bourbon (internally); such good friends.  Serving spoons, cutlery and glassware were arranged.  Shirts changed, hair combed and lipstick applied, we were ready!

Picnik collage

It was quite the feast of mac’n cheese.  The aromas emanating from the kitchen were intoxicating as was the variety of roses and reds being poured.  As we called our friends to the buffet table I recited the history of macaroni and cheese from the internet.  Did you know it was probably originated by the Romans, and the French in pre-Revolution times?  Also our beloved Benjamin Franklin introduced macaroni to the new USA, as most of us know, but no one in our group sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

Our guests lined up and dug in.

Picnik collage

Each plate was a work of art.
We chose not to disclose which dish was which and asked for a ranking.  The favorites were:

  1. G___’s experiment, which was roughly a mound of various cheeses melted into half and half with some delicious seasonings, stirred into the cooked pasta and then topped with bread crumbs and smoked paprika and broiled until golden.
  2. My mushroomy mac’n cheese with my regular cheese sauce, the pasta tossed in truffle oil and then sautéed mushrooms mixed in with the cheese sauce, truffle salt mixed in the breadcrumb mixture.
  3. G___’s mother’s mac’n cheese, because of the thick cheesy crust.  It’s cooked pasta with all of the longhorn cheddar piled on top, then the custard poured over and baked until bubbly and golden.
  4. My regular mac’n cheese topped with heirloom tomato slices then breadcrumbs on top. If I had the extra sharp white cheddar that I normally use I think this batch would have had the usual zing but this batch was milder in taste.

For those of you who were curious, the Kraft won out between the commercial brands because it was creamier.  The Annie’s seemed really dry, despite using whole milk and butter.  The Kraft, however, was frightening to make, once the powdered sauce mix was mixed with the milk it expanded and thickened as it sat, like some strange orange blob-like creature!

The spread

Despite all of the richness from our dinner, we still felt the need for a little dessert, homemade ginger cake with caramel sauce and two ice creams.
The ginger cake

We all agreed we must try this mac’n cheese blowout again, perhaps sooner than once a year, and continue our experiments with cheeses, toppings and methods. What are your favorites?

Spring into Pasta

Our weather this month has been intermittent sun and showers, very Springlike. I began craving something different for supper, something lemony and light, green and fresh, and something ridiculously easy.

What ended up on my fork was zucchini lemon ricotta pasta.

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My CSA box had a few zucchini and some lemons and there was leftover homemade ricotta in the fridge. Then I spotted a bag of tricolored egg pasta I had intended to eat with St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage that had never came to fruition, suddenly the combination seemed obvious.

In my pokey state it took a bit longer to prepare this supper but I didn’t mind. Cooking for myself brought a sense of sufficiency and satisfaction that has long been missing.

First, to prepare the zucchini I sliced it paper thin with a double-edged porcelain blade mandolin. I love this gadget, even one handed it’s easy to use.

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A colander set on a tray over a paper towel, with the mandolin on top.

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Perfect thin slices in seconds.

I had a few leaves on onions in my onion keeper, crudely sliced up and so I tossed them in a hot pan to soften.

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Meanwhile I grated a fat clove of garlic onto the zucchini, just steadying the grater with my right hand. When the onions were soft I tossed in the zucchini and garlic and gave them a quick stir to coat in the olive oil.

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Instead of standing at the stove to stir and toss the zucchini slices, I turned down the heat and put a lid on the pan and took a break.

Five minutes later, the zucchini was perfect.

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The egg pasta cooked in 3 minutes, colored red from bell peppers and green from spinach, so pretty for Spring.

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Pasta draining in my vintage sink.

There was a good cup of ricotta left. It was hard to resist eating it with a spoon. I added it to the zucchini and stirred it in well. It almost melted, producing into creamy richness, so lovely.

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Now for the lemon. I grated in the zest of a small Meyer lemon and the juice of half of it. I put in a few grinds of fresh pepper and a good sprinkling of my secret sexy weapon, Secret Stash Sea Salt’s Lavender Rosemary Sea Salt.

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This lovely creamy green mixture was ready for the pasta. A few tosses later with a cup of the pasta water to make the sauce all juicy and my supper was ready.

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A good spoonful of Parmesan cheese was a comforting touch. I had a half a glass of white wine and some iced tea and it was a great little supper.

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Happy Spring!

*****

REC:  Zucchini Lemon Ricotta Pasta

4 zucchini
1 T olive oil
1/2 an onion
2 cloves garlic
1 c ricotta
1/2 c reserved pasta water
salt and pepper (I used Lavender Rosemary salt from Secret Stash Salt
1/2 a lemon, juiced
1 tsp lemon zest (which is about the zest from the half lemon)
10 oz dried pasta (I used tricolore egg pasta)
1 T salt
Grated Parmesan

Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta, add 1 T of salt and cook per package directions.  Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water.

Finely slice the zucchini using a mandolin or into 1/8″ slices.  Mince or grate the garlic cloves.  Sautee the onion in a skillet over medium heat in the olive oil until limp and very tender.  Add the zucchini and garlic, toss a few times and cover for 5 minutes, or you can stir frequently, until the zucchini is very tender.   Season with salt and pepper and the lemon zest.

Add the ricotta cheese and stir until the cheese is fully incorporated into the vegetables.  Add 1/2 cup or more of the pasta water to make a thick creamy sauce.  Toss with the pasta and serve with Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4 as a first course or 2 as an entree.

You can also use the zucchini as an omlette filling.