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Fennel and Tomato Pasta Salad with Balsamic Dressing

12 Jul

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Last year I admitted to you all that I am no fan of pasta salads. The gloppy, the soggy, the mayonnaise-laden bowls of unappetizing sadness. Man, I’m really coming down hard on pasta salad, aren’t I? It’s almost as though I have forgotten how there are good pasta salads out there, but, sadly, not enough people seem to know about them. I am to change that, which is why I come to you today, armed with this utterly tasty and crisp, fresh and flavorful pasta salad.

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Found long ago on Epicurious, I’ve been making a version of this pasta salad for a few years now. Though I don’t follow the ingredient list to the letter, one element of the salad that remains unchanged is the dressing. With a perfect balance of flavors, this is a pasta salad dressing to keep on file for the duration of your life, and preferably the lives of your offspring as well. Never again shall you be steered towards the unsavory land of bland, droopy pasta salad dressings, for this dressing will make you demand a change for the better.

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It’s not dressing alone that makes this dish a stand out, however. Folded together with piles of fresh, crisp vegetables, the measure of pasta to not-pasta is spot on. The original recipe called for tomatoes and thinly sliced fennel to adorn the salad, but I love adding in whatever I have on hand to make the flavors and textures a bit different each time. Sometimes I throw in roughly chopped spinach leaves, thinly sliced ribs of red and yellow bell pepper, or a couple of cups of baby arugula. One thing I never leave out, however, is the fennel. It’s a must-have in this dish, adding a crunch and flavor that is impossible to replicate with anything else. Add this pasta salad to your summer repertoire, and I think you’ll agree.

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Last Year: Grilled Pineapple and Jalapeño Salsa and Lime Pecan Bars

Fennel and Tomato Pasta Salad with Balsamic Dressing

Adapted from Epicurious

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 medium garlic cloves, finely minced

3 cups diced, seeded plum tomatoes

2 cups thinly sliced fresh fennel (from about 1 large bulb)

1 cup chopped fresh basil

½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

6 green onions, white part only, chopped

½ cup coarsely chopped Kalamata olives

juice from 1 large lemon

salt and pepper to taste

1 pound pasta (penne or farfalle work well here)

optional: Instead of 3 cups of tomatoes, use 1 cup of tomatoes, 1 cup of sliced bell peppers, and 2 cups of chopped spinach leaves

also optional: ½ cup crumbled feta cheese

Whisk olive oil, tomato paste, vinegar, and garlic in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Combine tomatoes (if you’re using a combination of vegetables here, leave out the spinach leaves until you toss everything together with the pasta right before serving), fennel, basil, parsley, green onions, and olives in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss to combine, and allow vegetable mixture to stand at least 20 minutes, or up to 2 hours, tossing occasionally.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water. Drain, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, then toss and set aside to cool a bit. Toss every few minutes to keep pasta from sticking together, and to help it cool.

When cooled, transfer pasta to a large bowl. Squeeze over lemon juice, and toss to combine. Pour dressing over the pasta, and toss to combine. Add vegetable mixture, and toss once more. If using, toss in crumbled feta. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if desired.

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Elvis Macaroni and Cheese

20 Feb

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I know what you’re thinking: Elvis ate things other than his legendary fried peanut butter and banana sandwich? And my response to you is: Of course he did. Man cannot subsist on fried sandwiches alone. He must also eat fried chicken. And chicken pot pie. And scrapple. And mac and cheese. And then he must procure himself some Tums and a trainer, because, my landy, after living off of a diet like that you’re either going to lapse into a permanent state of narcoleptic splendor or force yourself to hit the gym. Or, at least, I would. Elvis probably just grabbed another bottle of root beer, tucked his napkin further into his collar, then reached for a fourth slice of ham.

It may seem odd that I am taking this time to highlight the eating habits of Elvis Presley, but I do have a very good excuse for my interest. It is this book, purchased long, long ago on the basis of its title alone:

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That’s a pan-fried bratwurst on the cover, by the way. It is covered with wine-sautéed sauerkraut and bell peppers, then sprinkled with just a dusting of caraway seeds. To Elvis’ right is a rib roast, and to his left is fried chicken. I would imagine that behind Elvis, where no one can see, is a defibrillator, but that’s just speculation on my part. He might have a stash of sweet potato pie back there, for all I know.

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Inside this book, as you can probably imagine, are dozens of recipes based on Elvis’ favorite foods. There are a handful of vegetable recipes in there, quite a bit of meat and potatoes-type dishes, and a solid sampling of dessert finds. Tucked in between a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs and a recipe for collard greens cooked with ham, butter, and sugar sits this recipe for macaroni and cheese.

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I first made this macaroni and cheese over a decade ago, when looking for something Southern-ish to take to a potluck. Back then, I made it pretty much as the recipe read, going straight Elvis-style in an effort to stick to the potluck’s Southern theme. In the years since, I have altered the recipe quite a bit, adding flavors here and there, cutting out additional butter, and dreaming up a crisp, crumbly topping for the dish that would provide a bit more textural interest. Though my version does not really resemble the original recipe any longer, I’d like to think that the inspiration is still hovering somewhere in there.

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Being as though this is still macaroni and cheese, we greet this dish about once a year, usually right around Christmas, when we tend to live our lives at the height of indulgence. I may have taken some of the Elvis out of this dish when I toned down its Southern sins (and I swapped in sharp cheddar cheese for Elvis’ stated favorite of American cheese, because no), but it’s still a far cry from being healthy or reasonable. That said, I make this with 1% milk, and you can, if you choose, use whole grain pasta if you really want to attempt to make this dish a bit more virtuous. Don’t go overboard on your healthifying efforts, though. Like I said, it is still macaroni and cheese.

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Last Year: Dal with Coconut Milk and Butter Cake with Blood Orange Curd

Elvis Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

Inspired by Are You Hungry Tonight? Elvis’ Favorite Recipes, by Brenda Arlene Butler

1 pound macaroni or cavatappi

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup finely diced onion

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups milk

2 or 3 slices of dark, whole grain or rye bread, slightly stale or lightly toasted and cooled

1 large clove of garlic

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter a large casserole dish or lasagna pan.

Boil pasta in well-salted water until just tender. You still want the pasta to retain a toothsome bite.

While the pasta is cooking, combine the bread slices and garlic clove in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the two ingredients together until the garlic is pulverized and the bread is finely chopped into breadcrumbs, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil.

Drain the pasta, then return it to the pot in which it was boiled. Sprinkle over the flour and diced onion, and add the Dijon mustard. Stir to thoroughly combine everything. Add 3 cups of the shredded cheese, and stir to combine.

Pour the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cup of shredded cheese on top. Pour the milk over the pasta. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the pasta.

Bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are dark golden brown.

Roasted Broccoli Pasta Salad

18 Jun

Not too long ago, we attended our first potluck picnic of the season.  This, along with the season’s inaugural bike ride downtown to picnic on the waterfront, and the breaking down of my willpower when it comes to filling my belly with fresh strawberries and lemon cream, heralds the dawn of a new eating season in our household.  Summer foods are upon us.

Most summer foods can be easily spotted and categorized as such.  You have fruit (strawberries, blueberries, peaches, nectarines), you have picnic food (stuffed sandwiches, a simple baguette with a round of cheese to accompany it), and you have what is quite possibly the most misunderstood of summer foods, the pasta salad.

I know what you are thinking: Pasta salad is misunderstood?  And my answer is yes, horribly so.  Most pasta salads are improperly seasoned, unbearably bland, kept in the refrigerator until their starches seize and become unpleasantly pasty, and/or so inappropriately covered with mayonnaise that one can’t even begin to identify the flecks of vegetables that are hiding within.  Which brings me to another point of contention, that being the utterly unbalanced proportion of pasta to vegetables.  Look, I know it’s a pasta salad, but does that really mean that 90% of what comprises the salad really have to be just pasta?

Perhaps I am alone in my displeasure, but, were it not for my feelings of malcontent, I never would have come up with the incredibly tasty and fulfilling pasta salad to see here.  In it, big chunks of broccoli get roasted in olive oil with generous slivers of garlic and a hearty pinch of red pepper flakes.  The pasta, before meeting up with the roasted broccoli, is bathed in a splash of lemon juice, soaking up the brightness as it cools to a perfectly toothsome texture.  A final toss with a confetti of lemon zest and a blizzard of finely grated, wonderfully sharp Pecorino Romano cheese, and it is done.  And, thankfully you are done—done eating dull, limp pasta salads, and done hunting for something delicious and new to take to a potluck and be welcomed with open arms.

Last Year: How to Make Smoked Salmon at Home–this is by far the most popular post on here, and for good reason.

Roasted Broccoli Pasta Salad Recipe

1 pound broccoli florets, trimmed into equally-sized pieces with a long portion of stems intact

3 large cloves of garlic, cut into thin slices

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

salt to taste

1 pound pasta

¼ cup finely grated or chopped lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

On a large baking sheet, combine broccoli, sliced garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and salt to taste.  Toss everything together until uniformly coated in olive oil.  Roast broccoli and garlic in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, until both the broccoli and garlic have developed a nice layer of caramelization.  Remove from oven, stir a bit, then set aside to cool slightly.

While the broccoli is roasting, cook the pasta in salted water until tender.  Drain pasta in a colander, then toss with lemon juice while still hot.  Allow to sit for 5 minutes to cool a bit, tossing frequently to aid in cooling and to keep the pasta from sticking together.

When both the pasta and broccoli are no longer piping hot, but still warm, pour the pasta into a large bowl.  Scrape the broccoli, along with every bit of olive oil and garlic left on the baking sheet, onto the pasta.  Add lemon zest and cheese, then toss thoroughly to combine.  Serve at room temperature.

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