Spring 2010 Limoncello Extravaganza

Yes, my lemon tree is at it again — producing fruit, but only one at a time, dammit. Certainly not enough for even the smallest batch of limoncello. In all honesty, I’m surprised that it’s producing even one with how cold it’s been here lately.

For weeks I’ve been spying on that lemon as I walk from house to office and office to house. A frigid twenty-some degrees outdoors, fifty in the greenhouse, and one brilliant golden orb proving that seasons do pass and winter will soon turn to spring. When I finally picked it, I wanted to make something special.

I dug out my Cook’s Illustrated and thumbed through the lemon recipes. My husband thought lemon bars sounded too sweet, so I settled on lemon butter cookies. One — it would satisfy my sweet tooth; two – it called for only two teaspoons of zest, so I could still do something else with the rest.

Now, I have rarely met a cookie I cannot eat, but those butter cookies were bad. It wasn’t the lemon, which was so flavorful, just holding it firmly perfumed the immediate area, and so sweet, we ate raw slices of it, peel and all.  But the cookies tasted like insipid flour, which means I wasted half a pound of butter and half my lemon zest! Perhaps they needed more zest. Or a pinch of salt (the recipe didn’t call for any at all). It may be the first time Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe has let me down.

They more than made up for it with their recipe for Lemon Linguine and Roasted Pine Nuts. It’s a new twist (at least to me) on an old Italian staple — Aglio, olio and pepperoncino. Garlic, oil, and hot pepper, also known as pasta di mezzanotte (midnight pasta) — aptly named as it’s so quick to make, partiers often whip it up as a midnight snack after a night out on the town. First, the old favorite:

Aglio, Olio & Pepperoncino

  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup of good olive oil
  • 2 – 4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 2 – 4 hot red peppers, crumbled
  • 1 pound pasta
  • freshly grated Parmigiano

Start your pasta water boiling and add a handful of rock salt.

If you like your pasta on the dry side, stick with 1/4 cup. If, instead, you don’t mind a dribble of olive oil on your chin and look forward to clearing your plate of pasta so you can sop up leftover sauce with a chunk of crusty bread, go for the 1/2 cup.

Heat the olive oil over a low flame and add the crumbled peppers. Slice the garlic about 1/16 inch thick. Don’t go too thin or it will burn easily.  Add the garlic, keeping a close, close eye on it as it cooks. For me, the best aglio, olio, pepperoncino has garlic that is cooked so slowly, it turns deep blond and has an almost caramel consistency. If caramelly garlic doesn’t appeal to you, you might try the Cook’s Illustrated suggested method of cooking the garlic, detailed below.

Strain the cooked pasta, toss with the oil, and grate a tablespoon or so of Parmigiano right into each dish. Be sure to have a nice chunk of good bread on hand.

A nice variation is adding a few anchovies and capers into the saute — use the larger quantity of olive oil.

Lemon Linguine with Roasted Pine Nuts

Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated — with double the lemon and pine nuts, without the suggested pepperoncino and parsley, and the addition of a bit of butter.

  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 2 – 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tsp lemon zest, plus some for garnish
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, pan roasted
  • freshly-grated Parmigiano
  • 1 pound linguine

As with the first recipe, this is a very quick sauce, so start your pasta water boiliRoasted Pine Nutsng right away.

Cook’s Illustrated suggests crushing the garlic in a press and mixing it with a teaspoon of water to better disperse the flavor into the oil. I’ve never heard of or seen this done in Italy, but it sounded interesting, so I gave it a try. Couldn’t detect any difference in the garlicky flavor, and I did miss those caramelly bits of sauteed garlic, but I’m sure either method will work fine.

In a small saute pan, roast the pine nuts over medium heat for 5 or so minutes. Don’t be afraid to let them get a little brown — it only adds to their flavor and appearance. Warning: Do NOT read the fat content on the package! (And if you do, please tell me — how squirrels stay so thin?)

Here’s where I wish I would have paid more attention to the original recipe: As seen in the next picture, I added the grated lemon zest to the garlic and sauteed them together. Only after rereading the recipe did I realize that the zest was supposed to be added fresh at the end and tossed with the cooked garlic and pasta. Although I thought this dish turned out great, I think it could have been even more lemony, which the fresh zest would likely have accomplished. Fortunately, I was able to grate just a bit more zest off my poor, naked lemon and add it to each plate. Note:  when zesting a lemon, only use the outer yellow layer and try to get any oils left on the grater into your dish as they’ll add a lot of flavor.

Lemon Zest and Crushed Garlic

Saute the garlic, either sliced or crushed. Pay close attention that it doesn’t burn. Once it’s cooked, turn off the flame and wait for the pasta to reach al dente. I used fresh spinach linguine which cooks in a couple of minutes, making this dish even quicker to go from pot to plate.

Once the pasta is cooked and strained, mix in the garlic oil, the lemon zest, half the roasted pine nuts. and all the butter. Toss until the butter is melted and the ingredients mixed.

Once served, garnish with freshly-grated Parmigiano and additional roasted pine nuts.

Lemon Linguine wtih Roasted Pine Nuts

I can see variations of this dish working out lovely as a chilled salad — using a little more oil and no butter, and perhaps with the addition of fresh picked and shelled baby peas. Add a warm spring day and a glass of viognier, and it sounds like treat to me.

Buon appetito ~

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Winter is a good time for hearty pastas drenched in rich and dense sauces, and this sausage and tomato sauce is one of my favorites. I’m not big on plain tomato sauce unless the fruit is just-picked, perfectly ripe, and barely cooked. One of the reasons I love this sauce is that once the tomato is cooked with sausage, grated zucchini, and fresh rosemary, and then doused with cream, the tomato flavor plays only a bit part.

My friend Rosa is one of those women who can make or bake anything to perfection, and her prowess in the kitchen is enviable. Recipes gush out of her like uncorked spumanti, and I only wish I could remember half of those she’s shared with me — or make them half as well as she does. We’re often cooking or eating when she shares those recipes, so they end up scribbled on napkins or paper scraps. I’m lucky if I get all the ingredients down, much less the quantities. I doubt my version of this sauce tastes as good as hers, and I’ve surely adjusted the quantities to fit my tastes (heavy on the meat and rosemary), but it usually turns out good all the same.

This last time, however, something wasn’t quite right. Since I was hoping to turn it into a post, I called up Rosa and ran through the list of ingredients.  She assured me I was in the ballpark with the quantities, and we decided that it must have been the sausage that wasn’t quite up to the quality needed for the quantity I used in a meat-based sauce. (I usually use our favorite link sausages, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I settled for bulk sausage at the local market.) The sauce wasn’t terrible by any means, it just wasn’t amazing. (The leftovers were already better than the original dinner, though, likely due to the flavors melding with the pasta and the addition of a little more cream while reheating.)

Starting with good sausage is key, and find the freshest rosemary you can (since it’s going to fall apart into the sauce, use only the softer tips). Even though the tomatoes play a supporting role, if they’re not good tomatoes, you’ll know. Unless it’s the middle of a sun-kissed tomato season here in Oregon, I strictly use imported tomatoes in sauce.

(Kathleen’s version of) Rosa’s Sugo di Salsiccia e Pomodoro

  • 1/2 onion, chopped small
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3/4 – 1 pound good sausage, ground
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 small to medium zucchini, grated
  • 4  tips fresh rosemary, each about 3″ long
  • 1 28 ounce can Italian tomatoes
  • salt
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1 pound hearty pasta, such as penne rigate or rustic linguini
  • fresh-grated Parmigiano

Saute the onion in the oil.  As you’ll be adding additional fat with the sausage, you need only enough oil to coat the onion, but if it’s not coated, add a bit more.

Once the onion is translucent, add the sausage and mash into small bits. Cook at a medium/low heat until the exterior looses its raw, pink color. Add the wine, and raise the heat to medium.

 

Meanwhile, grate the zucchini. When the wine has mostly evaporated from the sausage mix, add the zucchini and rosemary and cook until the zucchini is soft.

Add the tomatoes and their juice, mash well, and cook until the liquid created by the zucchini and the tomato water condenses. Once you’re sure the sausage has cooked (shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes into this stage), taste for salt and add if needed. The quantity will depend on how seasoned your sausage is.

Start your pasta water boiling if you haven’t already.

Because of the moisture in the zucchini and tomatoes, this sauce can easily take 45 minutes to condense. This could help you pass the time:

When the oil starts pooling on top of the mix, you’re nearly there.  Once you’re sure your sauce is almost ready, cook your pasta al dente.

Strain the pasta, add the cream to the sauce, and toss it all together with the pasta. Serve with freshly-grated Parmigiano and a bottle of hearty red wine.

Unless you like your pasta swimming in sauce, this recipe makes enough for up to 8 servings (2 pounds of pasta). Keeps refrigerated for 4 or so days or frozen for 30. Add a little cream when reheating leftovers to keep the sauce smooth and creamy.

Buon Appetito ~