experiments in cooking

Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Category

Baked Macaroni and Cheese in My New Dutch Oven

For Christmas, Chris gave me a Dutch oven made by Lodge. A Dutch oven is a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid that can be used both on the range top and in the oven. I’d never had any cooking dish that could be used both on the range and in the oven. How cool is that?

I asked for a Dutch oven because so many recipes I’ve seen called for one, including a couple of recipes for some personal favorites: chicken fricassee and macaroni and cheese. In the past few weeks, I’ve made both dishes with my new Dutch oven and got to make use of the range-to-oven versatility for both meals. Boy, is it fun to use!

It is not, however, fun to clean any dish in which you have made macaroni and cheese. That said, this baked macaroni and cheese recipe, which my mother emailed to me, is absolutely delicious and worth the time it took to clean the pot—my lovely, cast-iron, pre-seasoned Dutch oven.

Macaroni and Cheese (from New World Pasta

8 oz dried elbow macaroni (2 cups)

2 tbsp butter or margarine

2 tbsp all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups fat-free milk

12 oz of Velveeta (or processed cheese product), broken up


Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain.  Meanwhile, for cheese sauce, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat.  Stir in flour and pepper.  Add milk all at once.  Cook and stir until slightly thickened and bubbly.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Stir macaroni into cheese sauce in sauce pan, stirring to coat.  Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.  Makes 4 servings.

Oven Macaroni and Cheese:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare as above, except increase milk to 2 cups.  (If mixture is not in a Dutch oven, transfer mixture to a 2 quart casserole.)  Bake, uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and heated through.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Creamed Chicken and Bow Tie Heaven

This morning I got an email from my husband with Bow Tie Heaven in the subject line. The email read, I just want to say that I was thinking about your pasta dish on the way to work…it was really good!

Now that’s what I like to hear. And the funny thing is, while frantically trying to fix dinner last night, I thought dinner was going to be a failure. I was making creamed chicken, a Joy of Cooking chicken recipe combining poached chicken with a simple gravy that is typically served over rice, toast, or pasta, or baked in chicken pot pie, or baked in a casserole with pasta or rice in dishes like chicken tetrazzini or some versions of chicken a la king. And I had never made it before.

I intended to serve the creamed chicken over bow tie pasta (also known as farfalle pasta), a pasta I’ve never worked with but which I bought a bag of recently when it was on sale for under a dollar.

At first I thought I had a really great idea. But as 6 o’clock loomed and I rushed around the kitchen managing the various parts of the meal, I doubted.

Yes, I know that this particular meal doesn’t sound complicated. But, according to many cooking experts, you’re not supposed to serve new dishes to guests, and once again I had decided to try out something new on my in-laws—something that involved adding nutmeg—nutmeg!—to a flour gravy and serving it with chicken over pasta, something I never would have thought of doing a couple of months ago. I just wasn’t sure all these things really went together.

One reason for my doubting is that I felt really rushed. When I planned out how much time I needed to make the meal, I’d forgotten that the chicken breasts I was poaching would need time to cool down so I could skin, debone, and shred them. So, while trying to stir the creamed chicken gravy (consisting of butter, flour, broth, milk, salt and pepper, and nutmeg), I was also stirring a pot of unfamiliar pasta and trying to quickly shred very hot chicken, with my three dachshunds between my feet, pushing and nosing, all hoping I’d drop something yummy.

As I began to finish up each dish, I felt that each looked good on its own, but would they work together? Wasn’t nutmeg a weird spice to use in a meal like this? I couldn’t help it. I doubted my early confidence in the idea that creamed chicken and bowtie pasta would be easy and delicious. It might, instead, be weird and even a little repulsive.

When everyone was seated at the table and I brought in the dishes, I was pretty nervous. I explained to everyone that the creamed chicken was meant to be served over the pasta. And then I waited for the bad news.

Everyone served themselves and began eating. There was general silence for a few minutes. And then it came.

“You know …” said my father-in-law.

Let’s have it, I thought. You asked for it, serving a new dish to guests. Now you have to take the consequences.

“I think this meal ranks up there with your chicken enchiladas.”

With my chicken enchiladas? My father-in-law loves my chicken enchiladas!

“This is really good,” added my mother-in-law.

“This is good, Sarah,” said my husband.

“Are you sure?” I said.

The chorus of yeses was pretty definite.

“It’s not weird?” I pressed.

“No, no way!” someone said. Someone else chimed in, “It’s good! Very good.”

I almost couldn’t believe it. And then I took several bites of the creamed chicken and bow tie pasta on my own plate. And you know what? They were right. It was good.

“I’m kind of surprised this is so good,” I said. “I mean, bow tie pasta topped with a mixture that’s basically chicken pot pie filling? Wasn’t sure it would work.”

“Well, I hope you make it again,” said my father-in-law.

I didn’t tell anyone about the nutmeg.

I think it may be the secret to reaching bow tie heaven.

All Good but the Crispy Garlic

Last night I tried two new dishes: angel hair pasta with olive oil and garlic, and a raspberry crunch (adapted from a cranberry crunch recipe).

The angel hair pasta was a side dish for salmon baked in lemon sauce. My Joy of Cooking warned me not to add cheese to the pasta dish, and I’m glad I didn’t. The fish and pasta went together well. The only problem I had was that the recipe instructed me to saute the garlic for about two minutes, but within just one minute it was browned and crisp. So we had a bit of crispy garlic  texture in our pasta.

The raspberry crunch also was based on a Joy of Cooking recipe. It was extremely easy to put together, and featured my favorite new baking ingredient: oatmeal. The recipe was originally a “cranberry crunch,” but I substituted raspberries for cranberries and cut back on the amount of added sugar. I also had slightly less than the 1 cup of brown sugar called for–about 3/4 cup, so I scaled back the other dry ingredients slightly as well and had to settle for less topping on top of the raspberries. I made sure the bottom crust. Also, I fortunately have an 8×8 pan, which the recipe is written for.

After dinner, I threw out the leftover pasta. We convinced Jonah to suck up a noodle or two, but Neeley wouldn’t touch it, so there was a lot left, and I don’t much like reheated pasta. I hope to eat more of the raspberry crunch tonight, however–and perhaps it will be firm enough, now that it is cool, to cut into bars as the recipe suggests–but I have my doubts.

Joy of Cooking‘s Cranberry [or raspberry] Crunch

Butter an 8″x8″ baking dish.

1 c old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats
1 c packed dark brown sugar (I had only light brown sugar)
1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 t salt. (I used only 1/4 teaspoon, with the salty apple crisp I made recently so fresh in my mind)

8 T (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces.

Cut the butter into the dry mixture until it’s crumbly but holds together when pressed. Spread half the mixture over the bottom of the baking dish, and press very gently with your hand, packing it very slightly.

Cover with:
3 c fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over. (I used raspberries) 

Sprinkle with:
1/2 c sugar. (I used approximately 1/3 cup sugar) 

Top the sugar-sprinkled cranberries with the remaining crumb mixture. Bake until the fruit is tender and the crunch is firm and well-browned, about 50-60 minutes. Let cool for 20-30 minutes. Cut into squares and serve warm.

Pesto Not My Besto

Pesto not my besto …

If it weren’t for my friend Abby, I would never have tried to make pesto. But Abby, an excellent cook, makes everything look easy. So I thought I would try to reproduce her Pesto and Pine Nut Pasta.

I decided to do this even though I had no experience with basil, usually steer clear of green food (no green eggs and ham, thank you), and refused to spend the money on pine nuts. I figured I could substitute sunflower seeds. They look alike to me.

It would have been wiser if I had left the pesto to Abby and our other similarly talented friends, but when I saw fresh basil at the Farmer’s Market one morning in June, I suddenly saw myself expertly whipping up a batch up pesto in the kitchen, serving it chilled with angel hair pasta to a group of admiring friends, and saying humbly as they praised my work, “Oh, it’s just a little recipe I picked up from Abby … she’s the real cook, you know.”

Well, that part is true. Abby can make the pesto, and I should leave it completely alone until I take an appropriate related cooking course somewhere in town and receive full step-by-step instruction in the art of the basics of basil. Because if my first attempt at making pesto is any indication, I’m not ready yet.

I can’t get it out of my head even now. I didn’t know pesto could be so messy. The green goo, the olive oil everywhere—it took so long to wash that slippery substance off of my utensils, out of the blender, off my hands. Like Lady Macbeth before me, I think I stood there, muttering “Out, out!” my hands stretched out from my body, disgusting, frightening, and sad.

Like her, I was helpless to heal what I had done.

When I try to think about it calmly, I see that I made a couple of mistakes.

First, when I realized that I had only a mini food processor in which to blend an entire batch of pesto, I could have halved the recipe. I could have divided the ingredients into two halves, mixed them separately, and then poured them together. I could even have blended one or two ingredients at a time.

But no, I crammed everything—everything—into my tiny food processor. It fit. Just. I had to mash the basic down with my hands. I had a moment of clenched jaws as I poured in the olive oil, the sunflower seeds, the other ingredients, and saw what a tight fit it was going to be. But when I was able to cram the lid on, I thought I had escaped trouble.

I was wrong. When I pressed the Start button on the processor, nothing happened. I tried again. And again. Next I tried removing pinches of ingredients from the processor, dropping them into a separate bowl and trying to work the processor again with less inside it. But it was still so full that it wouldn’t work.

I began to panic and pressed the button harder.  At this point, a piece of plastic flew out from the center of the processor and was quickly slimed by olive oil and lost in the basil leaves. I fished out the piece of plastic and thought, “This can’t be good.”

Obviously I couldn’t keep on going as I was. I transferred the gummy, bruised leaves and dripping oil and all into a bowl, tried unsuccessfully, to clean my hands, and pulled out my rarely used blender. I knew it would be hard to clean, but it had to work. And it did. Using the blender, I produced a batch of normal-looking pesto in moments.

I looked at the pesto in the blender. I began to think that perhaps things would turn out well after all. It was going to take a while to clean the blender, and I had dirtied a fair number of dishes and covered every surface in sight with a blend of green gunky mess, sunflower seeds, and costly oil, but I had pesto.

I moved forward with preparing the pasta. I think that at this point it might have been wiser to refrigerate the pesto and think carefully about my next moves, but that is not what I did. Instead, trying to put this entire incident behind me, I cooked up a bunch of angel hair pasta—stopping at one point to call Abby and ask a question, but she wasn’t home—drained the finished pasta, and mixed in the pesto. Then I stopped to survey my creation.

Was it supposed to be so green? I wondered. It was really, really green. I didn’t remember Abby’s pasta being quite so green.

I sniffed the dish. My nose wrinkled a little. Then I took a bite.

Something was—pungent. I thought I knew what it was. While the pine nuts in Abby’s salad just belonged—were unremarkable, in a way, because they blended—the sunflower seeds were very noticeably present. And, as I said—to put it nicely—pungent.

I had only one hope left. I covered the dish with plastic wrap and threw it in the fridge. It would probably look better … and smell and taste better … after it was chilled.

And then, after cleaning what I could, I left the house on some errand, escaping the scene of the crime.

When I returned home, my husband greeted me in the kitchen. “Abby called,” he said. “She says to use 16 ounces of pasta.”

I had used 8 ounces.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said, airily. “I already finished the pasta—I couldn’t wait. And anyway, I didn’t mix in all of the pesto.”

Which is true, but I had used almost all of it, on half the amount of recommended pasta. That certainly explained the extreme greenness of the pasta sitting in my refrigerator.

I asked my husband to take a taste. He did. Then said nothing and walked away.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“I’m not crazy about pesto,” he said. “I’m no judge.”

I cocked my head and looked sideways at the pasta. I imagine, I thought, that if you liked pesto, this wouldn’t look so green.

And probably you’d think the sunflower seeds added a really nice flavor.

Hoping this was true, I bravely took my Pesto and Pine Nuts Pasta to a church potluck picnic that night. But I knew I was in trouble when I saw that we had arrived late and everyone already had full plates. I had a sinking suspicion that unless my dish were placed in front of a line of very hungry people, no one was going to try it. I knew, somehow, that no one who was already full was going to take a serving of that pasta.

And I was right. I took the bowl home with me that night, completely full. I set it on the counter. And I made a decision. I dumped the entire lump of green pasta into the trashcan, and I took my serving bowl to the sink and washed always the traces of the pesto that would, I knew, haunt me in days to come.

Remember the pesto, will come the whisper.

You know what I think? I don’t even think they should let me buy basil at the market. The old man who sold it to me that pleasant June morning should have been accompanied by a wise-looking, wrinkled farming wife with graying hair in a bun who would have said sternly, “Young woman, do you know what you’re going to do with that basil when you get it home?”

Because I didn’t know. Although, to be honest, I probably would have claimed, offended, that I did know what I was doing. Sometimes I can be just a frightful liar—or downright delusional.

And that is probably why there is a small bag of frozen pesto, the bit I didn’t throw in the pasta, waiting deep in my freezer. Because I still want to be Abby.

And, Lord help us all, I continue to try.

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