Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pesto Cavatelli in Tomato Sauce

Making your own pasta can be very rewarding but most forms of pasta, without the aid of a pasta machine of some description, can be very difficult. Luckily there are a few that don't require mechanical assistance even for a beginner. These would include (but are not limited to) gnocchi (pronounced noh-kee), sp├Ątzel (prounounced shpet-sluh) and cavatelli (pronounced cah-vah-TELL-lee). This particular recipe calls for cavatelli.

There are nearly as many recipes for cavatelli dough as there are sauces they can be served with but this is one of my favourites.

• 1½ cups all-purpose flour
• ½ cup semolina (pasta) flour
• 2 eggs (room temperature)
• 3 tbsp pesto
• 1 cup ricotta cheese
• ½ tsp pepper
• 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese

Ingredients (Tomato sauce)
• 28 oz. can of tomatoes
• 2 tbsp tomato paste
• 1 cup sliced mushrooms
• 1 cup chopped onion
• ½ cup sliced olives
• 1 clove garlic
• 1 tbsp dried basil or 5 basil leaves

• icing spatula or (new) putty knife
• rolling pin
• pizza cutter
• chef's knife or large knife
• large pot
• large fry pan (for the tomato sauce)

You can use any sauce you want with these cavatelli but I find a tomato sauce goes best. If you have a favourite tomato, meat or marinara sauce go ahead and make that up. If not, here is a quick and simple sauce you can prepare before starting the cavatelli.

Slice mushrooms and chop/dice onions. Place in a hot fry pan (large enough to hold all the ingredients) with a little olive oil and saute until the onion is transparent. Meanwhile chop up the garlic.

At this point feel free to add any other ingredients you like such as roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, Italian sausage, etc.

Add the garlic and any additional ingredients to the onion/mushroom pan and continue to fry for 2 or 3 minutes (longer if you've added meat).

Slice or dice the olives and reserve. Use any olive you like, I've used green olives with pimento centers in the photos but black olives or salt cured olives would work just as well. I prefer to hold off adding the olives until about 10 minutes before serving.

Add the tomato paste and stir throughout. Continue to fry for another minute or 2. Then add your canned tomatoes. I like to use crushed/pureed tomatoes (usually the lowest sodium content of any canned tomato) but if you don't have crushed tomatoes any chopped/diced tomatoes will work. You can also crush whole canned tomatoes with your hands (watch for juice squirting out between your fingers). Of course you can use fresh tomatoes but I would remove the skin first (dip into boiling water for 30 seconds then into iced water... the skin should peel off). Let the sauce simmer while you prepare the cavatelli. Add the basil, olives and a little salt/pepper about 10 minutes before serving.

Making the Cavatelli
You can either prepare the dough in the traditional way by pouring a mountain of flour and other dry ingredients onto your kitchen counter, put a depression in the center, then add the wet ingredients one after the other while stirring with a fork until you have combined the dry with the wet. For cavatelli (as well as gnocchi) I find that using a bowl is cleaner and works just as well.

NOTE: As I have mentioned before I am a big believer in experimenting with food. You never know what you might get, sometimes it will turn out to be wonderful and other times... not so much. While preparing this recipe in order to take the photos I decided to try substituting whole wheat flour for the all-purpose flour I normally use (I prefer whole wheat pasta most of the time). I can honestly say that whole wheat flour does NOT work for cavatelli. The finished noodles were dry, grainy and less than palatable. So save yourself the disappointment, use all-purpose flour, bread flour, semolina flour or a combination of these but avoid whole wheat when making this recipe.
Also if you notice that your cavatelli looks a little different then the ones in the photos the odds are this is due to the whole wheat flour being substantially darker than a more processed flour.

Pour all your dry ingredients (flour, semolina, Parmesan & pepper) into a large glass bowl. Mix thoroughly, then make a depression in the middle of the mix and crack in the eggs. Mix for a minute then add the pesto. If you want to make your own pesto I will include a recipe at the end of this blog. After a minute of so of mixing in the pesto add the ricotta cheese and continue to mix until a rough ball of dough forms.

Onto a floured counter scrap out the rough dough ball and any remaining ingredients from the bowl. Now comes the hard part. You will have to kneed the dough until it is smooth and shiny. You may need to add a little more flour or a little water in order to get the ball to shape properly.

I usually push the heels of my hands into the dough, pushing it away from me for about 6-10 inches, then folding in the sides and repeating. Occasionally turn the ball of dough or fold the edges in to make a ball and continue to kneed. This could take 15-20 minutes. Once the ball of dough is smooth (no lumps what-s0-ever) and just a little shiny you are ready.

Now roll out the dough until it is approx. ¼" thick. Then using a knife or pizza cutter (a circular blade you can roll through the dough) cut into ¼" wide strips. I recommend cutting 2 or 3 strips at a time, no more or they will start to dry out. Take a strip and roll it on the counter under the palm of your hand until the square edges are flattened and the length of dough becomes rope-like in appearance.

Using a knife, edge of a fork or the pizza cutter again cut the rope-like dough into approx. ¾" long sections. Do this for 3 or 5 lengths of dough.

Now you are ready to turn the dough into a cavatelli noodle. Using your finger, the side of a spoon or butter knife place on top of the ¾" long piece of dough, press down and pull toward yourself. The dough should curl up on the trailing end of the finger, spoon or knife creating a noodle that looks a bit like a wood chip. This may be difficult the first few times but with practice it will get easier and the noodles will look better and better.

I've seen people actually pull the cavatelli while it sits on a fork giving the noodle more ridges. This is supposed to create more nooks and crannies for the sauce to cling to and it probably does but it also makes the whole process that much more complicated. If you have plenty of time give it a try, who knows it might become your preferred method. Me, I'll stick with my favourite method.

Personally I like to use an icing knife, a thin metal blade with no sharpened edge. The metal is very flexible and if you hold your finger back about 2" from the end, press down and pull toward you a nearly perfect curl of dough should appear. I've heard a scraper or putty knife will work just as well but haven't tried them yet. Once you have curled all the short pieces mix them with a little flour and set aside on a cookie tray, pizza pan or strips of wax paper.

Now repeat the process until you have cut and rolled all the dough. This should produce enough noodles for 4 servings. If you are only using one or two you can add a little more flour to the remaining noodles, put them in the fridge for about an hour or so to firm up, then put them into plastic bags and freeze them for later use.

While curling the last few cavatelli put a large pot of water (salted) on to boil. Once the water is boiling add about half of the noodles (shake off as much flour as possible) to the water. Once they noodles are cooked they will float to the top. I usually let them float on the top for a minute or so to make sure they are fully cooked. Scoop them out of the pot with a slotted spoon (a large spoon with holes in it that allows the water to drain out) or a small metal mesh strainer. Put into a glass bowl. Some people like to add a little butter at this point to keep the noodles from sticking together.

Once all the noodles have been cooked and added to the bowl you can top them with the tomato sauce and serve. Each person can add a little Parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt and pepper according to their own taste. As for a side-dish / vegetable cavatelli is great with fried zucchini, fiddleheads or buttered carrots.

If this seems like a lot of work why not make a party of it. Invite over a few friends and everyone can take a stab at making the cavatelli. I love cooking parties, especially ones where everyone can get their hands dirty (or doughy, floury or just plain messy). Each guest can also bring part of the meal (side-dish, dessert, wine, etc.) You will certainly learn who your friends are... they'll be the ones that show up to the next cooking party.

Pesto Recipe:
As promised earlier here is a simple recipe for pesto. Simply add the following ingredients to your food processor (or a blender if necessary). Fresh basil (2 cups of packed leaves), 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, 1/3 cup pine nuts (optional) and 3 cloves of garlic (minced). Pulse the food processor a few times to start breaking up the leaves and pine nuts then turn on steady. Slowly add 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil in a steady stream until all has been added. Allow the food processor to puree for about a minute. If necessary turn off and use a spatula to scrap down the sides, then process further. This will make about 1 cup of pesto.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do It Yourself Meals - Tip #1

I thought I would add a few cooking tips to this blog rather than just recipes and the occasional tip that is relevant to the recipe. So, to get started here is one that has served me well over the years.

Tip #1 - Don't crowd the fry pan.
When I first started cooking I used to throw all the ingredients into the fry pan and cook them but I was invariably disappointed with the results. Over time I learned that a crowded fry pan will prevent proper cooking. For example, if you are frying diced chicken or ground beef or even sliced mushrooms and you put too much in the pan only a small portion will be able to come into contact with the bottom of the pan. AND THAT'S WHERE THE HEAT IS!

You are better off to use a very large pan or even two medium size pans in order to properly brown or fry your ingredients. Also you will need less oil if you don't over fill the pan so this tip is healthy as well.

If you only have the one medium size pan then cook the ingredients in sequence and transfer the prepared elements to a new pot. For example, first saute your onions and garlic, then move them to another pan. Now brown your meat and when properly seared add it to the pan. Then panfry any other vegetables or ingredients and, finally, add them to the other pan. Most recipes can be handled in this manner. Be sure to deglaze the pan by adding a splash of wine, water or broth to lift all the wonderful bits of flavour clinging to the bottom of the pan and add that to the new pot as well.

For convenience sake I would recommend having at least one large (over 10"), one medium (8-10" wide) and one small (6-8" wide) non-stick pan and at least one non-coated pan (in other words a pan without a non-stick coating). After all there are times when a non-stick pan just won't give you the results you want.

The type of pan you choose depends on what you plan to do with it. If you are planning on making omelets then the pan should be fairly thin walled but if you are planning on browning meat then a thicker base is preferable.

Cast-iron is nice but requires a certain amount of TLC to keep it in prime condition and properly seasoned. It is also slow to heat and slow to cool but nothing sears meat better.

For versatility you could try what is called clad cookware - alternating layers of aluminum, stainless steel or sometimes copper. Stainless steel is a great surface to cook on, durable and smooth, but aluminum or copper cores will retain and distribute the heat better. I don't recommend strictly aluminum pans, they sometimes react badly to certain food acids. They also score easily.

Copper pots are wonderful, if you can afford them, as are enameled cast-iron and titanum. In the end it comes down to what you can afford and what you like cooking with.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Almond-coated Pineapple Chicken with Orzo

Ever wonder why people think everything they've never tried before tastes like chicken? Well, it just might be that chicken is a very versatile meat that readily takes on the flavours of whatever it is cooked with, thus chicken can taste pretty much like anything. This recipe is a good example. Not only does the lemon and pineapple make the chicken very tender it also adds a delicate but delicious sweet/tart flavour. This is an easy and quick dish that you can make in about 20 minutes.

• 1½-2 cups chicken
• ¼ cup ground almonds
• 1½ cups pineapple pieces
• 1 lemon (zest and juice)
• 2 medium cloves garlic, chopped
• 2 stalks chives, chopped
• ¼ cup chicken or vegetable broth
• 1 tbsp oregano
• 2 tsp tarragon
• 2 tbsp mayonnaise
• 2 cups orzo or your favourite small pasta

• medium size stock pot
• large heavy non-stick fry pan
• citrus zester
• citrus reamer (see pic)

Be sure that you use mayonnaise and not salad dressing. I prefer a mayonnaise made using extra-virgin olive oil (fewer calories and less saturated fat).

If you are using fresh pineapple chop off about a half inch from the top and bottom. Then cut away the skin by sawing off 2 inch wide strips from top to bottom. Be sure to cut on the inside of the small dark 'eyes' near the outside of the pineapple. Use a small spoon or knife to scoop out any dark divets remaining. Cut the skinned pineapple into quarters from top to bottom, then cut away the core. Cut up pineapple into bite-sized pieces and reserve. If using canned then... open the can. If the can contains rings cut them into bite-sized pieces.

Start water boiling in the stock pot. Once it is boiling add the orzo or other small pasta of your choice and cook (as per package instructions) until al dente.

Dice the chicken into bite-sized pieces and coat them with the almond powder, salt and pepper. Put a large, heavy non-stick fry pan on medium-high heat.

Crush and chop the garlic. I find it easier to chop crushed garlic rather than to try chopping the whole clove (which tends to move around too much). Lay the clove on a cutting board and place a large knife flat side down (blade pointing away from you) onto the clove and press down with the heel of your hand until the clove collapses. Then chop. If you don't like crushing your garlic try slicing the clove into three thick pieces, then chop those. Chop up the chives as well, discarding the bottom quarter inch (with the roots). Add both to the fry pan with a little olive oil. Fry for about 2 minutes.

Strip the zest from the lemon. For those unfamiliar with this process simply take the citrus zesting tool (or a very, very fine grater) and drag it across the surface of the washed lemon. Try not to get any of the white pith but rather only the bright yellow 'skin' of the lemon. Strip as much zest as you can get from the lemon. Set aside.

Slice the lemon into two and use the citrus reamer to remove as much juice as possible. If the lemon has a lot of seeds use a strainer to remove them or pick them out by hand. Reserve the lemon juice.

Add the chicken to the frying garlic/chives and brown on all sides. Then add the zest and about half of the lemon juice. Reserve the remaining lemon juice which can be added at the end if you want a more lemony flavour or dribbled on your vegetable side dish.

Fry for one minute and then add the stock (or water if necessary), oregano, tarragon, pineapple and cook for another couple of minutes. Once the orzo is ready drain and add it to the fry pan. Continue to fry for a minute or two, reducing the liquid level.

Transfer the contents of the fry pan to a large glass or ceramic bowl (not metal or plastic) and stir in the 2 tbsp of mayonnaise mixing it throughout the ingredients. This should make the dish creamy.

Serve with your favourite vegetable. Asparagus or broccoli work well because both taste great with lemon juice.

Tip: How to get the most out of your pineapple.
First a word of caution. Fresh pineapple is much more acidic than canned pineapple. If you find that you get a rash when eating fresh pineapple you might want to switch to the canned alternative.

When buying your pineapple check to see if it is ripe. When ripe you should be able to pull out one of the central leaves fairly easily. If they won't pull out then the pineapple's not quite ripe.

Once you get your pineapple home put it in the fridge. Store it upside down for a while, this allows the sugars, which have settled in the bottom of the pineapple, to travel back into the top half making the whole pineapple sweeter. Sweet huh?