Slow Cooker Bolognese Sauce

slow-cooker-bolognese-dinner-is-served-coverHard to imagine a dish more worthy of Sunday Supper than a bowl of tagliatelle served with a hearty Bolognese Sauce, warm Italian bread and a bottle of red. I grew up in a non-Italian household with the quick “Americanized” version of this sauce (browned ground beef and a jar of marinara)  and not ashamed to admit I still make that version for the family when I’m pressed for time.  Simply referred to as “spaghetti,” it may not be the real deal but we all enjoy it.

This year, I have decided to go back to my Sunday Supper roots and resurrect some of the classic recipes, made from scratch with no shortcuts.   I’ve made Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce many times, but wanted to give my new slow cooker (see Equipment Notes after the recipe) a try, so made some adaptations and came up with a sauce that will comfort one and all.

Start with the holy trinity of flavor bases: onion/carrots/celery.  First chopped then finely minced (note the personalized Dinner Is Served cutting board!)slow-cooker-bolognese-dinner-is-served-3

Add a few pinches of classic Italian herbs:slow-cooker-bolognese-sauce-dinner-is-served-1

And let us just pause for a moment to admire this freshly opened bottle of Savory Spice Shop’s California Basil:slow-cooker-bolognese-dinner-is-served-2

And some best quality tomato products:slow-cooker-bolognese-dinner-is-served-4

Along with a little vino (red instead of the traditional white wine), and balsamic vinegar.  Then just let your slow cooker do all the work!  A last minute addition of creamy mascarpone cheese or cream cheese provides that extra dose of richness.

I have to say, this sauce is MADE FOR the slow cooker. The meat is incredibly tender and the sauce develops such a unique complexity. I will still approve of the “quickie” version for a busy weeknight but weekends are made for slow, old-school kind of cooking.

Until next time…be well, eat well, love lots!slow-cooker-bolognese-dinner-is-served-cover2

Slow Cooker Bolognese Sauce

  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 1/2 pound mild bulk Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup EACH chopped onion, celery, carrots
  • 1 TBS chopped garlic
  • 1 can whole tomatoes (28 oz), preferable imported Italian San Marzano
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 dry red wine
  • 1/4 cup low sodium beef broth
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 TBS balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup mascarpone or cream cheese

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Add beef and sausage and cook until no longer pink. Drain through a sieve and place on a paper lined plate; set aside.

Mince the onion, carrot, celery and garlic in a food processor and transfer to a 4-6 quart slow cooker. Pour the whole tomatoes along with their juices into the food processor and pulse a few times until chopped.  Add to the slow cooker.  Add all the additional ingredients except for the mascarpone cheese.  Stir.  Cover and cook on low for 4 hours.  Just before serving, stir in mascarpone or cream cheese.  Serve over pasta and garnish with shaved Parmesan cheese or slivered fresh basil.

Serves 6

EQUIPMENT NOTE

On Christmas Day, I was heating some cocktail meatballs and sausage in my slow cooker when my old faithful totally died.  Bummer!  I looked up my order history on Amazon and turns out the model was six years old.  Eh…not a super great lifespan, in my opinion.

I decided to go with another brand, Cuisinart, as a replacement and found this ultra cool model on Amazon.com. It not only slow cooks, it has a heating element to brown food and a steamer insert (perfect for steaming artichokes, corn, etc.).  I love the lighter weight interior and non stick surface.  So far I am totally in love with it and fingers crossed it will make it past 6 years!cuisinart-slow-cooker

 

 

 

 

Linguine with Sun Dried Tomatoes

Linguine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes 1

With fall approaching peak splendor and the final bunches of herbs being picked, I find myself reflecting on the my little backyard garden.  I am  always happy for our successes but the failures nag at me.  Sometimes overshadowing the good and causing me to rethink just about every move I made. And of course there’s the cursed weather. Too much rain, not enough rain, too hot, too cool a spring. WHY CAN’T IT EVER BE PERFECT!

Last year I was lamenting our dismal crop of tomatoes (see Spice Rubbed Chicken with Fresh Tomato, Olive & Basil Salad made with tomatoes not from my garden).  This year?  COMPLETELY different story.  The tomato gods cooperated and the  produced a bumper crop!Linguine with Sun Dried Tomatoes

An interesting variety too, although I can’t remember the specific name but for about a 4-week period, the plants produced a near record amount of sweet, little Roma-shaped fruits that ended up in salads and salsas. In hopes of preserving these little gems beyond harvest time, we turned to our old, trusty Ronco Food Dehydrator and got busy.Linguine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes 2

Seasoned with a little dried herbs and packed with extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs, these chewy tomatoes have a burst of intense tomato flavor in every bite.Linguine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes 4

Oil packed tomatoes have countless uses but our favorite way to enjoy them is very simply with linguine, garlic and a little parsley. It’s a dish we used to cook frequently back in our downtown-Chicago-condo-no kids days. Although back then we used store bought brand oil packed dried tomatoes. And hey, nothing wrong with that! Just be sure you select a top notch brand (our favorite after much trial and error, is still California Sun-Dry Brand).

I still recommend trying your hand at drying tomatoes at home.  You will be amazed how easy it is and how even with off-season grocery store tomatoes, you can achieve fresh, intense flavor.  Having a dehydrator is handy, but your oven and a baking sheet work just as well.  Instructions for drying your own tomatoes at home come after the recipe.

Other than canning sauce this is the next best way (in my opinion) to preserve the summer tomato bounty. It was a good harvest indeed.

So what’s up next at Dinner is Served? Hint: I got out my slow cooker today 😉 Linguine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes 3

9-29-2015 2-35-56 PM

  • 12 ounces dried linguine pasta
  • 1 jar (about 8 oz.) oil-packed sun dried tomatoes
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, very thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or basil
  • Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Drain tomatoes and reserve oil. Place about 2 TBS of the reserved oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Add sliced garlic and saute just until fragrant, under 1 minute (do not let the garlic brown). Add reserved tomatoes and turn heat to low. Stir to combine then turn off heat and cover pan.

In the meantime, cook linguine according to package directions until al dente. Drain pasta but do not rinse.  Add pasta and parsley to the pan with the tomatoes and the garlic, stirring to combine.  Add additional reserved oil if desired, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 2 as a meatless entree, or 4 as a side dish


~How to Make Dried Tomatoes at Home~

  • About 6 cups fresh cherry tomatoes
  • Italian seasoning blend, about 1 TBS
  • Kosher salt
  • Extra Virgin olive oil
  • Sprigs of fresh basil or thyme

Prepare the tomatoes by cutting each in half, trimming out the core in the middle. Using a paring knife, carefully scrape seeds from each tomato. Sprinkle each tomato half with some of the herb mixture and a pinch of salt.

DEHYDRATOR METHOD

Arrange tomatoes cut side up onto drying trays.Linguine with Sun Dried Tomatoes Dry for about 4-5 hours, then turn halves over and press flat with our finger or a spoon and return to drying.  Check occasionally, rotating racks and removing tomatoes that are finished.  Finished tomatoes should be dried, but still pliable and chewy.

OVEN METHOD

Preheat oven to 170°. Arrange tomato halves, cut side up on a rack set inside a sheet pan). Bake for about 10 hours, checking every couple of hours or so and flipping over if necessary. Depending size of tomatoes, they may take longer to dry.  Just make sure they are shriveled but still chewy.

Place dried tomatoes in a glass jar.   Add in a few sprigs of basil or thyme, then pour in olive oil to cover. Cover jar and store in refrigerator if not using within 24 hours.

Farmers Market Penne Pasta with Grilled Vegetables, Blue Cheese & Basil

Farmers Market Penne Pasta with Grilled Vegetables, Blue Cheese & Basil| Dinner Is Served

Ahhh sweet corn season is upon us. FINALLY!  And the little cherry tomatoes in my garden are just coming ripe.  The basil is flourishing.  Those of us who suffer through long winters with tasteless produce flown in from far away lands, well we LIVE for the summer bounty.

I am forever looking for creative ways to combine my farm finds.  Many of my meals this time of year consist of an  impromptu combination of vegetables, fruits and fresh herbs.  Often grilled. Sometimes roasted or raw.  Combined with grains or various cheeses and herbs. Salads become crazy concoctions of fruit and greens.  Toss out the measuring cups and recipes kind of cooking.

This pasta dish started with some of the sweet corn we brought home from Wisconsin last weekend.
Farmers Market Grilled Vegetable Pasta 1Farners Market Grilled Vegetable Pasta 2Freshly shucked. A blank slate as it were. With nothing immediate coming to mind, I decided to rummage around the fridge.   Ah ha!  Some cute little sweet peppers. Both perfect for the grill. Now I was getting somewhere.  A few little cherry tomatoes from my garden would add some color and freshness. Some blue cheese the spouse picked up from our local French Market.  Well yeah, I think that would work!  The dish was coming together nicely. Just needed to add a bit of carb and finish it off with fresh basil from my garden.Farmers Pasta 5

The prep here is so easy.  Just brush the peppers and corn with a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Medium heat works well for veggies on the grill but careful monitoring and frequent turning and checking for hot spots is always a good plan.Farmers Market Grilled Vegetable Pasta 3

Once the vegetables are nicely charred. Let them rest a bit to cool, then chop the peppers and cut the kernels off the corn. The rest is a piece of cake except that cake baking is hard and this is not!  Just toss with some cooked pasta, fresh tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese (or another cheese of your choice) and slivered basil.  I like to finish my pasta with a simple drizzle of olive oil and serve warm or at room temp. If you happen to have some basil-infused olive oil on hand, all the better.

As for substitutions?  You bet!  You can substitute or add almost any fresh summer vegetable to this dish.  Summer squashes, eggplant and onions would be great additions/substitutions.  Larger tomatoes can also be charred on the grill and added.  If you want to go the meat route, some sliced grilled chicken goes well with this pasta. As does a nice glass of chardonnay.Farmers Pasta 3

Enjoy summer in all its glory.  Even if your meals end up a little crazy :pFarmers Market Pasta with Grilled Vegetables Cover 2

Farmers Market Penne Pasta with Grilled Vegetables Blue Cheese & Basil

  • 8 oz. dried penne pasta (regular or whole wheat)
  • 4 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked
  • 2 cups of mini sweet peppers
  • 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese (or more to taste)
  • 1/4 cup slivered fresh basil
  • Extra virgin olive oil (or basil-infused olive oil)
  • Kosher salt and coarse ground pepper to taste

Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium.  Lightly brush all sides of corn and peppers with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Place on grill and cook until charred, checking frequently and turning as necessary.  Remove from grill and let cool to room temperature.

In the meantime, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with a few drops of olive oil to prevent sticking.

Cut the stems off of the peppers and chop (no need to seed the mini peppers).  Using a chef knife, carefully cut the kernels away from the corn.  Combine with the pasta then add the tomatoes.

Add the blue cheese, then swirl in a little olive oil just to coat and flavor the ingredients.  Add additional salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with slivered basil.  May be served warm or at room temperature.  Refrigerate leftovers for a wonderful pasta salad the next day!

Serves 2-3 as a meal or about 4 as a side dish.

Lemon Orzo Pasta with Spinach, Walnuts and Feta Cheese

IMAG0980 FINAL

~ Necessity is the mother of invention ~

                                        English proverb

 I honestly think this is how most recipes are created.  The fridge is near empty, save for a mish mash of leftovers. There’s a half empty box of pasta in the pantry and a container of ricotta cheese that is approaching its expiration date.  And those two remaining semi-stale hot dog buns?  Well yes of course those can be tossed into the food processor and turned into bread crumbs!  Bottom line:  your family is starving and food must appear soon or else.

Then in one magical moment, out of chaos, these ingredients come together into something splendid and behold, a recipe is born.

And so it came to be last month when all I had in my refrigerator were some ingredients leftover from a spinach salad I had prepared for New Years Eve (spinach, toasted walnuts and feta cheese) and a box of Barilla Orzo pasta.  Keep in mind these ingredients happen to fall into that category of “things I could eat every day forever and be completely happy.”

Lemon Orzo Pasta with Walnuts, Spinach and Feta Cheese | Dinner Is Served

All it needed was a touch of garlic and a splash of lemon zest and a drizzle of olive oil at the end to complete. The flavor and texture combination: amazing.   The possibilities: endless.  Serve as a hearty, meatless entree or if you’re in the mood or some protein, serve as a side with grilled chicken or top with some sauteed shrimp.  Leftovers taste great chilled for lunch.

This, to me, is what cooking is all about: working with fresh ingredients, creating, reinventing. If necessity is the mother of invention, then necessity is indeed a very good thing.

Lemon Orzo with Spinach, Walnuts and Feta Cheese | Dinner Is Served

Lemon Orzo Pasta with Spinach, Walnuts and Feta Cheese

1 cup Barilla Orzo pasta

5 cups baby spinach, lightly packed

1 large clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted (see Note>)

2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

1 TBS extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

1 tsp fresh lemon zest

Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper

  •  Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add Barilla orzo pasta and cook until just al dente per directions; drain pasta and set aside.
  • Heat 1 TBS olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and saute approximately 30 seconds until fragrant. Add spinach and a pinch of salt.  Toss gently with tongs until spinach is just starting to wilt, about 1-2 minutes.
  • Return orzo to the pan.  Stir in walnuts and then feta cheese.  Add some additional salt if necessary and a few grinds of black pepper.  Toss gently to coat.  Then just before serving, drizzle a little olive oil over and sprinkle with lemon zest.  Give it one more toss then serve.

Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side

Note> For the freshest nuts, try the bulk section of your grocery store. You can buy just as much as you need, save some money and chances are they are infinitely fresher than the packaged nuts in the baking section.

Lemon Orzo Pasta with Spinach, Walnuts and Feta Cheese | Dinner Is Served

 

 

 

 

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups | Dinner Is ServedFunny that as long as I have been cooking, certain dishes continue to elude me. Most often they are the most basic dishes, like meat loaf or ribs. I’ve tried countless recipes and techniques but can’t quite nail it. Lasagna is also a dish I was never 100% satisfied with. Too watery, too dry, pasta not quite right, too heavy, and so on and so forth.  Like Goldilocks searching for the perfect porridge or chair.

Then this past weekend, while flipping through some back issues of Cooks Illustrated, I came across a technique for making streamlined manicotti.  No tedious filling of pasta shells, just spread the cheesy filling over no-boil lasagna sheets, roll up and bake. I had great confidence, being from Cooks Illustrated, the recipe would be fantastic, which it was. What I didn’t expect was to realize that this was the perfect lasagna I’ve been searching for!

Just in a slightly different form.

The pasta is melt-in-your-mouth tender, the cheese filling light and airy and the fresh tomato sauce takes just 15 minutes to make but is bright and fresh. As with all recipes, I made several modifications and proclaimed the dish “blog worthy.” So browse through some of the photos, if you wish, or dive straight into the recipe and all it’s cheesy, tomato goodness!

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups | Dinner Is ServedYou don’t need many ingredients or time to make a delicious tomato sauce. I upped the amount of garlic from the original recipe and also gave the sauce a shot of tomato paste at the end to thicken it a bit.  Isn’t it beautiful?

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups } Dinner Is Served

The filling contains all the traditional ingredients you’d expect in a cheese filling, along with fresh herbs.

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups | Dinner Is Served

And assembly could not be easier.  Just soften the no-boil noodles in a little boiling water, spread some filling on each one, combine with the tomato sauce and bake.

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups | Dinner Is ServedSunday supper at its very best!

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups | DInner Is Served

Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups *

Tomato Sauce

2 (28-ounce) cans petit cut tomatoes, with their juice

2 TBS extra virgin olive oil

2 TBS minced garlic

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Salt

1 TBS tomato paste (optional)

2 TBS chopped fresh basil leaves

Cheese Filling & Pasta

3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese

2 cups grated Parmesan/Romano blend cheese

2 1/2 cups freshly shredded mozzarella cheese

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

2 TBS chopped fresh parsley

2 TBS chopped fresh basil

16 no-boil noodles (prefer Barilla® brand)

Preheat oven to 375°

Heat oil, garlic and pepper flakes in a large saucepan over medium heat until fragrant, but not browned (1-2 minutes). Stir in tomatoes and about 3/4 tsp salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. If you want a slightly thicker sauce, stir in tomato paste. Sauce can be left chunky or, if you prefer a smoother tomato sauce, puree a bit using an immersion blender. Stir in fresh basil, adjust seasonings, and set aside.

For the cheese filling, combine ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan/Romano cheese, 2 cups of the mozzarella, eggs, salt, pepper and herbs in a large bowl. Adjust seasonings.

To assemble, pour 1-inch boiling water in a 13×9-inch broilersafe baking dish. Add noodles, one at a time, completely submerging them. Let noodles soak until pliable, separating then with tip of sharp knife to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water and place in single layer on clean kitchen towels. Discard water from dish and wipe dry.

Spread bottom of baking dish with 1 1/2 cups of the sauce. Using a large spoon, spread a heaping 1/4 cup of the filling evenly onto bottom three-quarters of each noodle, leaving top quarter exposed. Roll into tube shape and arrange in baking dish seam side down. Repeat with remaining noodles and filling. Top pasta evenly with remaining tomato sauce, making sure pasta is completely covered. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for bubbling, about 40 minutes.

Remove baking dish and adjust oven rack to 6 inches away from broiling element. Heat broiler. Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan/Romano cheese blend.  Broil until cheese just begins to brown, about 4 minutes.

Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 8

*Recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated

Rigatoni with Sweet Sausage, Escarole, Cannellini Beans and Garlic Broth

Rigatoni with Sweet Sausage, Escarole and Cannellini Beans | Dinner Is ServedMy challenge here is to get through this post without complaining about winter/cold/snow OR the fact that I wrote this entire blog post yesterday and this morning the entire thing had vanished.  Poof!   I was seriously ready to cry big crocodile tears, but being the stubborn Scot that I am, I’m just going to suck it up.  After all, there’s no crying in the kitchen now, is there!

I will say that this pasta dish is absolutely magnificent and the fact that it can be cooked, start to finish, in well under thirty minutes makes it even more so.  This is “country casual” food at its best!  Just begin with simple, but hearty ingredients:

Rigatoni CollageThen it’s just a matter of browning the sausage, simmering the garlic in the broth along with the escarole, cannellni beans and Parmigiana Reggiano and cooking some pasta.  It’s crazy how easy this is.  I highly recommend serving with bread so you can soak up every bit of the garlicky broth and a glass of hefty red wine (I’m thinking a nice Rosso di Montalcino would pair nicely).

This dish can be varied in many ways to suit your dietary needs.  Feel free to substitute turkey sausage and whole grain pasta.  You can even go the vegetarian route and use vegetarian sausage (Field Roast Brand has received high marks and is available at Whole Foods) along with vegetable broth.  My one and only caveat with this recipe is that is best served immediately.  I am the queen of leftovers, but this dish just does not stand up as well to chilling and re-heating, so there you have it.  Full disclosure always here on DIS.

And now I better get this thing published before POOF happens again.  I may be a stubborn Scot, but if this thing disappears again, I’m toast.  Happy cooking everyone!

Rigatoni with Sweet Sausage, Escarole, Cannellini Beans and Garlic Broth

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound mild or hot Italian sausage
3 medium or 2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 cups canned low-sodium chicken broth or homemade stock
1-2 heads escarole, torn into 2-inch pieces (about 8 cups)
1 cup drained and rinsed canned cannellini beans (from one 15-ounce can)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano, plus more for serving
Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
3/4 pound rigatoni
  1. In a large deep frying pan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the sausage and cook, turning, until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove. When the sausage is cool enough to handle, cut it into slices.
  2. Put the garlic and the broth in the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the escarole, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes. Gently stir in the sausage, beans, Parmesan, salt, pepper and optional red pepper and simmer 1 minute longer.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta until just done, about 14 minutes. Drain and toss with the sauce. Serve with additional Parmesan.

Serves 4

Fresh No-Cook Tomato Sauce with Garlic, Basil & Oregano

2013-09-04 19.21.43

Gazpacho, BLT’s, Caprese Salad (many times over) and salsa.  You name it, I’ve made it these past few weeks.  Not complaining one single bit either.  When it rains fresh garden tomatoes, it pours and I love it all, including this bright and beautiful no-cook sauce that brings summer right to your dinner table.

I served this last night over whole wheat linguine, but it is also at home atop sliced toasted baguettes, grilled chicken, polenta or spooned over your Sunday morning omelette.   How about a few added bonuses here:  no simmering over a hot stove, very little fat and calories and a generous dose of raw garlic, which recent studies have shown to be very beneficial.  Do I dare use the “h” word?  Indeed!  It’s HEALTHY!

If you’re wondering whether you HAVE to peel the tomatoes, the answer is “yes.”  Peeled tomatoes make this more of a sauce and less of a salsa, if that makes any sense.  I also love the added dimension the fresh oregano adds.  If you don’t have any on hand, no worries, it will be just as flavorful.  And speaking of flavor, this sauce tastes extra amazing if you let it sit at room temperature for an hour or so before serving.  It also keeps well in the refrigerator (just bring back to room temperature before serving)

Wishing everyone a happy September harvest!

2013-09-04 18.01.00

Fresh No-Cook Tomato Sauce with Garlic, Basil & Oregano

About 2# ripe tomatoes, any variety

1/4 cup chopped scallions

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1 TBS chopped fresh oregano

2-3 large cloves garlic, minced

1 TBS extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

Place tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds.  Remove with slotted spoon and immediately place in a bowl of cold water to stop cooking.  As soon as tomatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skin, then remove the core and as many of the seeds as possible.  Dice pulp and place in a bowl and toss with the olive oil (you should have about 2 cups of chopped tomatoes).  Add remaining ingredients to the bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Can be made up to two hours in advance and left at room temperature.  If made a day ahead, store, covered, in refrigerator.  Bring back to room temperature before serving.

Yield: 2 cups of sauce

Linguine with Chicken and Roasted Herbes de Provence Tomatoes

20121212_190633 (3)

Two words that elude me in the dog days of winter here in the Midwest: fresh produce.  Oh sure, walk into the produce section of any supermarket, and there are displays piled high with apples, berries, lettuce.  Artfully arranged pyramids of pears, oranges and lemons.   Asparagus in January?  Yep, it’s there.  Craving some watermelon on a snowy day?  No worries, I’m sure your supermarket has it.  So shiny and colorful, like they were plucked from Mother Earth mere seconds ago.

Thanks to the marvels of science and transport, this produce is beautiful to behold but sadly, so lacking in flavor that  the term “fresh” is often a misnomer.  Perhaps a more appropriate term would be “not frozen” or “not canned” or better yet just…”meh.”

And in my book, nothing epitomizes meh, more than an out-of-season tomato.

Oh sure they’re red.  They look ripe, don’t they now?  But biting into a mid-winter supermarket tomato is a bit like eating an unsalted saltine cracker and washing it down with a swig of lukewarm tap water.  It’s enough to make one swear off fruits and vegetables for the next five months and just down a few V-8® cocktails every day.

Thankfully, I have come to save the day.  Step off that produce cliff, turn on your oven and reach into your spice cabinet.  All is not lost my friends.

Roasting and seasoning do amazing things to bland, out-of-season produce, and this recipe is a shining example.  Grape tomatoes get a healthy dose of olive oil, herbes de Provence, salt and pepper.  After quick roast in a 450° oven they are magically transformed into sweet, juicy tomatoes that actually taste like, well…tomatoes!  And FRESH tomatoes at that!

20121212_174017

Oh yes, there’s chicken in this recipe too and it’s all served over linguine and garnished with more fresh herbs.  But of course it’s the tomatoes that make the dish.  Like summer in a bowl, I tell you.  Actually make that summer in the South of France in a bowl.

Linguine with Chicken and Roasted Herbes de Provence Tomatoes

  • 1 1/2 pounds cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 tablespoons herbes de Provence <see Note>
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt plus more
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 3 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves or fresh basil
  • 1 lb. dried linguine pasta (or thick spaghetti pasta), cooked according to package directions

preparation

Preheat oven to 450°F. Combine tomatoes, 2 tablespoons oil, and herbes de Provence in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large heavy ovenproof skillet until oil shimmers. Carefully add tomatoes to pan (oil may spatter). Transfer skillet to oven and roast, turning once, until tomatoes burst and give up some of their juices, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl and drizzle with Worcestershire sauce.

Meanwhile, season chicken all over with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Sear chicken on both sides until golden brown, 6–8 minutes. Transfer pan to oven and roast chicken until cooked through, 8–10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest for at least 5 minutes.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to same skillet; heat over medium heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Deglaze pan with vinegar, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan; add tomatoes and their juices and simmer until sauce is just beginning to thicken, about 1 minute. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

Divide linguine equally among plates.  Slice chicken and place atop linguine.  Spoon tomatoes and sauce over; garnish with herbs.

Serves 4

HERBES_DE_PROVENCE_1Note> Herbes de Provence may well be the most heavenly blend of dried herbs available on this planet .  While variations exist, most blends contain thyme, savory, fennel, rosemary, marjoram, basil, tarragon and (my personal favorite) lavender. Talk about aromatherapy!  One whiff of this blend will immediately transport you to the south of France.  In the past decade it has become more widely available in most every supermarket chain, although you will benefit greatly by getting a fresh, quality blend from a fine spice purveyor.  If you love it as much as I do, check out Savory Spice’s Herbes de Provence Seasoning Salt.  It’s terrific on roasts, lamb chops, roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Orecchiette with Fennel, Sausage and Tomatoes {quick..family..comfort}

2012-11-18 18.41.58

Oh I’m telling you, I am cranking them out fast and furious now!  It does help that I am currently in between assignments at work, although today I am home bound with a most annoying cold.  And in my Daquil-induced haze, it took me about thirty minutes to just add text to my photo.  Oy..

Anyway, this recipe has an unusual twist from traditional pasta dishes, which frequently begin with a onion/garlic saute.  In their place is a generous portion of fresh fennel, sauteed to a mellow stage, beautifully complimenting the sweet Italian sausage and tomatoes.  Fresh basil and some piquant Pecorino Romano cheese brighten the dish.  It comes together in about 30 minutes, so it definitely qualifies as quick and well…it’s pasta so of course it’s comfort food!

For a healthy variation, you may certainly substitute turkey Italian sausage and whole grain or whole wheat orecchiette or medium shells.    And a glass or two of some nice sangiovese certainly would not hurt either.

Eat well and take your vitamin C.  I’m off in search of a big box of tissues  :-/

Orecchiette with Fennel, Sausage and Tomatoes {quick..family..comfort}

Kosher salt
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 lb. sweet Italian sausage, casing removed (or 3/4 lb. mild turkey Italian sausage)
1 large fennel bulb (about 1-1/4 lb.), quartered, cored, and finely chopped
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups fresh (or canned) seeded diced tomatoes, drained if using canned
12 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1/8 to 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 lb. dried orecchiette pasta or medium shells
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.

Heat 1-1/2 Tbs. of the oil in a 10-inch straight-sided saute pan over medium-high heat until shimmering hot. Add the sausage and cook, breaking it up with a metal spoon, until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer the sausage to a paper-towel-lined plate and pour off and discard any fat left in the pan.

Set the pan over medium heat and add the remaining 1-1/2 Tbs. oil, the fennel, and 1 tsp. salt. Cook, stirring, until the fennel softens and browns lightly, about 6 minutes. Raise the heat to high, add the wine, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits, until almost evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the sausage, tomatoes, half of the basil, the red pepper flakes, and 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down, 6 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the orecchiette in the boiling water, stirring frequently until just tender, about 11 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and drain well. Return the pasta to the pot, add the sauce, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 1 minute so the sauce and pasta meld. If the pasta seems dry, add enough cooking water to moisten it to your liking. Stir in half of the pecorino, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve sprinkled with the remaining pecorino and basil.

Serves 4

Summer Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Pancetta and Fresh Basil

Why am I continually underwhelmed with pasta salad?  I mean here are two things I adore: pasta and salad.  Together.  In theory this should be a match made in heaven yet in reality, it rarely makes “runner up” status.  Meh.

Oh it’s popular for sure and with good reason.  It can be prepared in advance, travels well and few people dislike it.  But it’s never the leading lady is it?  Instead it’s stuck in the chorus line along with the cole slaws,  potato salads and fruit salads.   Even grocery stores and deli’s can’t seem to get pasta salad right.  They think they can just pour bottled dressing over cooked pasta and call it a day.  I knew in my heart I could improve upon the mundane.

I was determined  to come up with a fresh and flavorful pasta salad  for my son’s birthday dinner (which also included brats, fresh watermelon and Rice Krispy Treats for dessert).  My guy loves bacon, fresh tomatoes and cheese, so I incorporated all three into the salad.  Fresh basil from the garden seemed like a natural addition and added a burst of fresh flavor and color.  The result was a beautiful salad that had excellent textures and a wonderfully fresh and balanced flavor.  No chorus line for this gal!

One quick note before the recipe:  I can’t stress enough the importance of using a freshly made vinaigrette dressing.  For my salad,  I used Penzey’s Italian Vinegar & Oil Seasoning, along with red wine vinegar and olive oil.   Local followers of my blog can find a fabulous Italian Dressing Base at the Savory Spice Store in Hinsdale.  Good Seasons® Salad Dressing Mix is a decent alternative as long as you stick with good oil and vinegar.  If I can’t sell you on the notion of making a dressing from scratch, go with a high quality bottled dressing, like Trader Joe’s Organic Red Wine Vinegar & Olive Oil Vinaigrette.  It’s free of all the things that typically make bottled dressings unsuitable (high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, etc.)

Finally, a pasta salad that can take center stage!

Garden Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Pancetta and Fresh Basil

1 # dry pasta, regular or whole grain (fusilli, orchiette, elbow, farfalle, etc.)

6 oz. pancetta or bacon, chopped

8 oz. light havarti or other mild soft cheese, cubed (see Note 1>)

2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered lengthwise (about 2 pints)

3-4 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 cup lightly packed torn fresh basil leaves

1 cup freshly prepared Italian Vinaigrette Dressing (see Note 2>)

Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Cook pancetta in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just crisp, about 10 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Cook pasta according to package directions until just al dente (do not overcook). Drain and rinse under cool water.  Drain thoroughly and add to a large serving bowl.

Gently stir in remaining ingredients.  Pour about ½ of the dressing in and taste, continuing to add more if necessary.  Reserve any leftover dressing.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover and refrigerate for up to 6 hours, letting the salad sit at room temperature about ½ an hour before serving.  If necessary, add a little more dressing and toss gently.

Serves 8-10 people as a side dish

Note 1> To facilitate cutting cheese into cubes, place in the freezer about 15-20 minutes prior to cutting.  Other cheeses that may be substituted:  mozzarella, feta, queso blanco,  or smoked mozzarella.

Note 2>  Remember, freshly made dressing is always preferable to bottled.  Salad dressing bases are available online at the Savory Spice Shop and also Penzey’s Spice Shop.    Follow the directions on the jars and remember your dressing is only as good as the quality of the ingredients!  Good Seasons® Salad Dressing mix is a decent alternative.  For store bought dressing, I prefer Trader Joe’s Organic Red Wine Vinegar and Olive Oil Vinaigrette.