Puff Pastry is my Friend

November 15, 2010

How about a quickie? Appetizer, that is…

With the holidays coming up, there’s a lot of eating to be done, and therefore a lot of cooking and sharing. One of my favorite and absolute easiest appetizers to make is whatever’s-in-the-fridge-on-puff-pastry. I usually have two or three cartons of frozen pastry on hand this time of year, ready to take out and load up with goodies. In less than an hour, I can have scrumptious appetizers ready to serve.  Anybody can.

Don’t always have an hour’s notice? Defrost some puff pastry sheets, lay them flat between parchment paper, and keep them in the fridge just waiting for those unannounced guests to drop by. I’m guessing they’d keep for at least a couple of weeks, but I’d bet they’ll never last that long.

Puff Pastry Appetizers

While you’re pastry’s defrosting, raid your refrigerator and pantry for goodies, such as:

  • goat or other yummy cheese
  • sauteed greens
  • onions to caramelize
  • artichoke hearts
  • cherry tomatoes
  • pesto
  • leftover pasta sauce
  • olives
  • capers
  • anchovies
  • Artichoke and Chili Dip
  • grilled veggies
  • pine nuts
  • smoked salmon
  • bacon marmalade

Need I go on? The list is limited only by your imagination and the contents of your refrigerator. Go ahead, experiment.

Got a sweet tooth instead?

  • cream cheese, dark chocolate and chopped dried cherries or cranberries
  • any flavor of jam that pleases your palate
  • powdered sugar for dusting (after baked)
  • Hmmm… what about peanut butter and chocolate chips in a Reese’s-like concoction? Topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream? Yep. I could do that… right now!

To Assemble the Appetizers

I used to just unfold the sheet of pastry dough on a floured board, cut it into 9 or so squares, plop some stuff on top and bake. Then my lovely friend Rosa taught me a little trick that kicks the presentation of these beauties — and their ability to hold a good amount of toppings — up a notch or two. It’s as easy as 1 2 3.

Folding Puff Pastry for Appetizers

  1. Cut the thawed, floured pastry sheet into squares — as many as you’d like, but smaller than 2″ x 2″ might be tricky to fold.
  2. Fold the square in half and cut along the two short sides — all the way down to the long end, and almost , but not quite meeting at the point.
  3. Unfold, and cross the cut-through points over to the other side.

Voila! You’ve just made a beautifully shaped appetizer, complete with a cavity to fill and even a handle to hold while eating!

Ready to Bake!

In this batch, I made two kinds:

I grated a bit of Parmigiano over the top, baked them in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes, and wow! I would have no problem making a meal out of these. Maybe I’d add a side of soup for nutrition’s sake, but the smallest bowl I could find. Special thanks to my friend Helene who turned me onto the bacon marmalade!

Yum! Yum! Yum!

Serve warm, and don’t forget the wine!


Whore’s Pasta

October 25, 2010

Bet that got your attention. Bad, bad Kathleen, especially since this isn’t going to be true Pasta all Puttanesca.

I’ve had the real thing many times, and it’s great. But I didn’t have a recipe on hand the first time I wanted to make it, so I made it up as I went along. Turns out I liked my version better than actual Puttanesca. Blame it on bacon. Or blame it on me because I just love pork bellies too much. Anchovies (the ingredient in true Puttanesca that I’ve replaced) are great too, but bacon is better.

Kathleen's Puttanesca

Like Spaghetti all Carbonara, I love this pasta because I almost always have the ingredients on hand. It’s also quick. Since I don’t add much of the liquid from the tomato can, I can whip up this sauce in the time it takes to boil water and cook a pound of penne rigate.

For a vegetarian version, you can omit the bacon completely. Won’t be as tasty, but it ought to be perfectly edible.

Side note: Ever heard of Bacon Marmalade? Me neither before last week. A friend in New York sent me a YouTube link to this young chef who overcooked some bacon and ended up creating Bacon Marmalade. The stuff sounds fantastic — in fact, two jars are on their way. I’m already imagining all the ways I’m going to love it — starting with right off the spoon. Next I might try it with goat cheese on puff pastry appetizers. Bet it’s crazy good with grilled tomatoes on bruschette. Ever had one of those bacon chocolate bars? Out of this world. I’ll definitely be experimenting. Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait. Promise to tell you all about it.

Kathleen’s Puttanesca

makes about 4 servings

  • 4 slices bacon
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, sliced medium/thin
  • 1-4 dried red pepperoncini, crumbled
  • 1 28 oz. can Italian San Marzano tomatoes (or the equivalent of fresh sauce tomatoes from your garden)
  • 2 tablespoons capers, strained
  • 2 dozen imported olives – just about any strong flavored olives will work, as long as you like them. I prefer a colorful mix.
  • 1 pound Italian penne rigate pasta (True puttanesca calls for spaghetti, but I prefer penne; they carry this hearty sauce well.)
  • freshly grated pecorino

Start your water boiling in your pasta pot. Add a small handful of rock salt. As I’ve mentioned before, the salt in your pasta is what brings your dish to life, so don’t skimp. Remember that you’ll only be eating the small amount of salt that’s in the water your pasta is absorbing. Still hesitating? Okay, think of it this way: without salt, pasta is basically hardened paper mache goop.

Stack the bacon and slice into 1/2-inch wide strips. Saute on low to melt the bulk of the lard. Do not crisp. Do not worry if it does not look completely cooked — you’ll be finishing it off in the sauce.

Meanwhile, saute the garlic slices in olive oil over medium heat until they just start to color. (I would usually use a little more olive oil than this in a tomato sauce, but the bacon will add some, so 4 tablespoons olive oil is plenty.)

Gauge how many pepperoncini to use by how hot you like your food. Crumble and add to the oil as the garlic starts to cook. (I’m currently using pepperoncini that my husband and I bought at least 10 years ago in Milano. They’re about 1/2″ long and look a lot like those Italian good luck horns people wear. Yes, our peppers are old. They look faded and sad, but the damn things keep getting hotter and hotter as the years pass!)

If you’re using fresh tomatoes, clean, quarter, and squeeze them over the sink to remove most of the soft center pulp and seeds. If it bothers you to find tomato skin in your pasta bowl, blanch them first to remove the skins.

If you’re using canned tomatoes, pull them out of the can with a slotted spoon, quarter, and let them drain for a few minutes in a colander. Save the pulpy liquid in the bottom of the can for now–you may need it.

Once the tomatoes have drained, add them to the olive oil and garlic and cook over medium heat. You’re shooting for a pleasant bubble, not a rapid boil.

While the tomatoes are cooking, pit your olives, quarter, and add to the sauce. Add the capers as well, being careful not to add any of the vinegary liquid they’re usually packed in.

While the bacon is still warm, remove it from its oil with a slotted spoon and add it to the cooking sauce. Leave the bulk of the grease in the pan, but do not fret if a spoonful or two gets into your sauce. It will only add to the flavor.

Cook your sauce on medium. If you haven’t added too much of the tomato liquid, it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to cook, so wait a few minutes and toss your penne into the boiling pasta water. If you’ve used fresh tomatoes and don’t know just how much water they’ll produce in the pan, let the sauce get well on its way before tossing your pasta in the water as the last thing you want is pasta sitting in a colander, turning to glue as you wait for your sauce to finish cooking.

As it’s cooking, break the tomato quarters into smaller chunks. I like small pieces of tomato in my sauces, so I never puree my tomatoes. You can, and should, prepare them the way your prefer.

Your sauce is done when the tomatoes lose their pink color and the olive oil starts to pool. Never let your tomato sauce cook so long that it turns as thick and darkly hued as ketchup. (The sauce is just a couple minutes away from ready in the photo below.) If your sauce looks too dry, add some of the pulpy liquid from the tomato can, just a spoonful or two at a time, until the sauce looks right.

Almost Ready!

When the penne are al dente, strain well and toss with the sauce. Serve with freshly grated pecorino; some good, crusty bread; and nice bottle of red.


Spaghetti alla Carbonara

September 12, 2010

I love a pasta dish that can be whipped up in half an hour. And when all of its ingredients are something I almost always have on hand, it’s even better. A few dishes that meet this criteria come to mind, such as Aglio, Olio, Pepperoncino — garlic and hot red peppers sauteed in a healthy dose of quality olive oil. Italians nicknamed this dish Pasta di Mezzanotte (Midnight Pasta) because it’s so quick and easy, it’s often the first choice when one comes home hungry after a night on the town. And there’s Penne and Broccoli, Tuna and Capers, Butter and Parmigiano, but my hands-down favorite is Spaghetti all Carbonara. It’s packed with protein and bursting with flavor. And when properly made, it’s creamy, deeply satisfying and the perfect choice for spur-of-the-moment guests.

30-Minutes or Less to Carbonara!

What you’ll need:

  • 1 pound Spaghetti
  • 1 medium onion, chopped small (not fine)
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 8 slices good bacon (I prefer thick-sliced)
  • 3 – 4 eggs *
  • 1 – 2 Tablespoons parsley (depends on your taste and how fresh and pungent your parsley is)
  • 1/2 cup fresh-grated Parmigiano cheese
  • Fresh ground pepper

* Properly made, this dish uses barely cooked eggs. As with past recipes I’ve posted,  using uncooked or barely cooked eggs comes with a warning: Although FRESH raw eggs do not usually carry Salmonella or other bacteria, it is possible. Such bacteria can be dangerous to small children, elderly, and sick people. Only use fresh eggs from a trusted source. (Thank you Ian!) If you’re not comfortable consuming raw eggs, you can buy pasteurized eggs or pasteurize your own (directions easily found online).

To Make Spaghetti all Carbonara:

  1. Start heating your pasta water and add a healthy dose of rock salt. (Eating under-salted pasta is like eating under-salted bread: bland, bland, bland. Serving a great sauce over unsalted or under-salted pasta will not do the meal justice. Remember, your pasta only absorbs a portion of the water, and therefore only a portion of the salt. The rest goes down the drain with the excess water.)
  2. In a frying pan large enough to hold the cooked pasta and the sauce, melt the butter and saute the chopped onions over medium heat. After a few minutes, when the onions soften but before they start to brown, add the bacon and the wine. Cook until the wine evaporates then remove from heat. As it is boiled rather than fried, the bacon will not (and should not) crisp. The time it takes for the wine to evaporate is plenty enough to fully cook the pork.
  3. Keep an eye on your pasta water. As soon as it boils, add the spaghetti and cook al dente.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the parsley, cheese and pepper.  (Beautiful bowl made by Eugene Saturday Market potter Amy Palatnick.)
  5. Strain the cooked pasta, reserving a tablespoon or two of cooking liquid, and add the pasta to the pan with the bacon, onions and butter. Turn the burner back on and toss with the hot oil. When the spaghetti is well-coated, REMOVE FROM HEAT. Add the egg, parsley and cheese mix and toss to mix well. Serve immediately, preferably with a loaf of crusty bread and a nice bottle of red.

DO NOT COOK THE EGGS. Spaghetti alla Carbonara should never NEVER never resemble spaghetti and scrambled eggs. The hot oil and pasta will heat the eggs and they may firm up in spots, but the sauce should still have a creamy appearance.

Buon Appetito!

Kitchen Tip: Parmigiano cheese condenses a sauce and will over-thicken it if too much is used. When recipes call for a lot of cheese, add it slowly so you can gauge when taste and consistency are in balance. In this recipe, where it’s mixed in with other ingredients, keep a few tablespoons of pasta water on hand. If the sauce dries out too much, toss in the pasta water a tablespoon at a time until it looks right.

Enjoy ~