Capellini with Bacon, Rosemary, and Very Ripe Tomatoes

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I know, it doesn’t sound that exciting. And it’s an odd recipe for me to make as I don’t eat bacon (and I try not to eat pasta, albeit usually unsuccessfully). Also I typically prefer my rosemary in cocktails.  So in light of all that, believe me when I tell you that you should make this for dinner tonight, that’s how good it is. I did a quick inventory of the blog archives the other night as I was searching for dinner inspiration, and realized that although I’ve posted a lot of Cook This Now recipes, I had never posted anything from September (the recipes are categorized seasonally, by month). Moreover, I had never even made anything from the September chapter. This pasta jumped out at me as it looked quick and easy (I didn’t have a ton of time), it still felt (still feels!) way too much like summer to start making hearty fall dishes yet, and most importantly, my cherry tomatoes were (still are!) falling off the vine faster than I could pick them. Leave it to Melissa to anticipate my every late September need.

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This dish comes together so easily as written, and although I know I’ll make it again, what I really love about it is that it reminded me how easy it is to make your own tomato sauce. There’s no need to get any fancy ingredients or even roast the tomatoes beforehand, you can literally just sauté fresh tomatoes – cherry, heirloom, roma, what have you – in a little bit of olive oil (or bacon grease, if that’s your thing), add some herbs, and you have a delicious meal in ten minutes. I made this, start to finish, during halftime of the Monday Night Football game. I even made a vegetarian version for myself (I added fennel per Melissa’s suggestion, and it was delish!). And it’s a great way to use those tomatoes that are on their last legs – mine are so ripe that they literally burst as you pluck them from the vine. Added bonus: it will make your kitchen smell AH-mazing.

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This sauce gets a little kick from the garlic and red pepper, and the balsamic is a lovely addition (I think red wine vinegar would be good too). And of course I love basil and parmesan on all pasta dishes/all things. Melissa specifically calls for Pecorino Romano but for some reason I had Parmigiano-Reggiano in my head. So I splurged on the $20/pound stuff (it’s the king of cheese!) and would very much recommend it – the dish is so simple that you can really taste the difference. But I’m sure Pecorino Romano would be delicious as well, and probably a little cheaper. A bowl of forbidden carbs, a delicious jammy fresh tomato sauce, fancy cheese, and of course the requisite glass of wine that must go along with any pasta – it was the perfect consolation prize as my fantasy team under-performed it’s way to 0-3.

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One year ago: Corn Risotto-Stuffed Poblano Peppers
Pasta, Previously: Penne with Asparagus and Chèvre, Crunchy Baked Pasta with SausageCarrot Mac and Cheese, Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, World’s Best Mac and Cheese (yikes, that’s a lot of mac and cheese!)
Melissa Clark, Previously: Double Coconut Granola, Olive Oil Banana Bread, Split Pea Soup, Corned Beef and CabbageRoasted Halibut, Carrot Mac and Cheese, Kale SaladSesame Soba Salad, Brown Butter Nectarine Cobbler, Port-Braised Short Ribs

Pasta with Bacon, Rosemary, and Very Ripe Tomatoes, from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now

8 ounces pasta (any kind you like)
3 ounces bacon, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces (using thick-cut bacon, 3 ounces will be 3 slices)
1 large bushy rosemary sprig
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 very large (or 3 medium) tomatoes, a mix of red and yellow is nice (I used 2 large handfuls cherry tomatoes)
Balsamic vinegar, optional
Soft herbs, if you want this to look pretty (I used basil and Italian parsley)
Pecorino Romano, optional (or Parmigiano-Reggiano)

1. Cook pasta in a large pot of heavily salted water
2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer bacon to a paper-towel lined plate, leaving the grease in the pan (if it looks really greasy, spoon some out; you just need a thin layer, enough to sauté the garlic without burning).
3. Add the rosemary, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste to the skillet and cook until the garlic is lightly browned, 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and let the sauce simmer until the pasta is cooked.  Season aggressively with more salt and black pepper. If it tastes flat, add a few drops of vinegar.
4. Drain pasta and top with the sauce.  Sprinkle with bacon pieces, cheese, and fresh herbs, if using.

Note from Melissa: Onions or leeks are a nice addition if you have them on hand – sauté them in the bacon fat for a few minutes before adding the garlic and red pepper. You can also add chopped fennel, in which case save the fronds for garnish.

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore

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I’m not entirely sure if lasagna is a “sexy” enough topic for a blog post, but I’ve had enough people ask me for this recipe over the years that I thought I should share it with all of you. Plus, it seems appropriate to celebrate our first official week of rainy weather with a recipe from my “Celebrate the Rain” cookbook from the Junior League of Seattle. [Sidenote, my career in the Junior League was sadly short lived – but this cookbook was one of the best things I got out of it.]  I’m not ordinarily a huge lasagna fan – I don’t eat red meat, which means I often can’t eat it anyways, but even when there’s a veggie option I find it’s usually heavy and/or mushy and/or bland.  It’s hard for me not to like a dish made up of pasta plus cheese plus tomato sauce, but rarely have I experienced a truly stand out dish – this is one of the few lasagna recipes I’ve found that I can truly say I love. So much so that I made it for a dinner party last week, and have been pouting about lack of leftovers ever since.

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Chicken cacciatore is basically chicken braised in tomato sauce, usually with some combination of onions, garlic, mushrooms, bell peppers, and herbs. I made that definition up, but it’s a combination of the first five or so recipes I read after a quick google search. This recipe, as the name implies, is a combination of chicken cacciatore and lasagna. We make a “cacciatore sauce” of sorts using lots of fresh vegetables, shred the chicken into the sauce, and layer it with noodles (or pasta sheets!) like a lasagna, only using mozzarella and parm instead of your typical ricotta layer. While there is still plenty of cheese, it somehow seems so much lighter than traditional lasagna – and so full of veggies that you don’t even feel that bad about going back for seconds.

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This isn’t the quickest of recipes, but as lasagnas go it’s pretty simple to put together. The chopping takes some time, but it’s so worth it. I’m now really wishing I had doubled the recipe, as this will keep well in the freezer (baked or unbaked), and as long as you’re doing one, you might as well do two (or even three!) – the increase in time is marginal. Time saving tips include no-boil noodles or pasta sheets and rotisserie chicken. Boiling lasagna noodles is a total pain – no matter how much oil I add to my cooking water, they seem to always stick together and then break when I try to pull them apart. I’ve used no-boil noodles before and think they’re fine, but I know some people don’t like them – the pasta sheets really are the way to go if you can get them. They’re so easy and so fun, and it makes it a lot easier to serve your lasagna without having to worry about cutting in between the noodles (no pretty ruffles like regular lasagna noodles, though). Rotisserie chicken is a huge time saver, and I find the meat easier to shred. For once I can’t tell you to use the Trader Joe’s pre-chopped onions (my apologies to your eyeballs), but slicing doesn’t take too terribly long.  Pre-grated cheese seems so un-gourmet….but if that’s your thing, I won’t tell and it will still taste yummy.  Honestly though, if you can force yourself to be at least sort of efficient in the kitchen (slice onions while chicken cooks, slice mushrooms/mince garlic/dice pepper while onions cook, grate cheese while sauce simmers, etc.) it really doesn’t take that long to put together.

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Layer your lasagna: noodles, sauce, cheese; repeat; repeat again. Don’t the pasta sheets look so fun?!? Dump an extra can of tomatoes over everything (except the top layer of cheese) if you’re short on sauce (see my note at the bottom of the recipe). You can stop here and then bake later (if you’re making this ahead of time), or freeze now and bake later, or bake and then freeze – the possibilities are endless.  For my aforementioned dinner party, I put the lasagna together ahead of time, went about my day, and then popped it in the oven right before everyone arrived. The house smelled yummy, we had a lovely 30 minute cocktail hour, and then I took the lasagna out of the oven, popped dessert in, and we sat down to a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven dinner (and then an hour later, a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven apple crisp).  For someone who’s always scrambling around and doing everything last minute, I was pretty proud of myself!  Lasagna may not be the sexiest blog topic, but it gets major points for the make-ahead factor. Serve with a simple green salad and bread, and it’s a great meal to share with friends – you can sit and chat and enjoy yourself rather than frantically throwing everything together at the last minute. And with a fire in the fireplace and a couple bottles of wine, it’s the perfect meal with which to celebrate the rain.

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, from Celebrate the Rain

Serves 8*

Ingredients:
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
3/4 lbs. boneless, chicken chicken breast**
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
10 ounces button mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ dice
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes***
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 lb. mozarella cheese, grated
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
12 cooked lasagna noodles OR 9 no-boil lasagna noodles OR 3 fresh pasta sheets

To make sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, add them to the pan, and cook until browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken and cook until tender and cooked through, about 5 minutes longer.  Transfer the chicken to a plate and let cool; reserve the saucepan. When the chicken is cool, shred it and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onions and sauté until tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the mushrooms and garlic and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Add the bell pepper and sauté until nearly tender, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, black pepper, and dried red pepper flakes. Add the chicken, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

To prepare lasagna: 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce (avoiding large chunks of chicken or vegetables) on the bottom of the dish.*** Line the dish with 4 cooked lasagna noodles or 3 no-boil lasagna noodles or one pasta sheet. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the tomato sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella and 1/3 of the parmesan. Repeat the layering of noodles, sauce, and cheese two more times.  (The lasagna can be prepared a few days ahead, covered with plastic, and refrigerated, or covered securely with plastic and foil and frozen for a few weeks). Bake the lasagna until the cheese turns golden brown in spots and the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes (if after 30 minutes the sauce is bubbling but the cheese hasn’t started browning, turn the oven to broil and watch the lasagna carefully – it will brown quickly).  Transfer the dish to a wire rack and let the lasagna sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.

*The recipe says 8 servings, but I’ve found it usually yields closer to 10-12. You’ll want leftovers, though.
**You could use a store-bought rotisserie chicken here as a shortcut. I usually do, and wondered why I didn’t this time (not that it’s hard to cook the chicken, but I always manage to get oil splattered all over my stovetop). You’ll need about two cups cooked, shredded white meat, skin and bones discarded.  One chicken should yield this easily.
***Every time I make this recipe, I find that I’m way short on sauce (in part probably because my lasagna pan is bigger than 9×13, so this may not be as much of an issue for you). My new trick is to use an extra can of crushed tomatoes – you could use a jar of spaghetti sauce as well if you’re in a pinch.  I like to pour 1/2 cup – 1 cup crushed tomatoes into the bottom of the pan before I start building the lasagna (rather than using the sauce as instructed). Then I do the recommended 1 1/2 cups of sauce per layer (possibly a little more if it looks like that isn’t enough). Once I reach the third layer I’m a little short, so I use up the homemade sauce and then dump the rest of the can of crushed tomatoes over the casserole before I add the final layer of cheese.  You could use a 15.5-ounce can of tomatoes if your lasagna pan is closer to 9×13 size/if you find you aren’t that short on sauce, but I used an entire 28-ounce can this time and it turned out great.  You could also just add the second can of tomatoes to the sauce as you’re making it (along with the can called for), but my saucepan is usually close to overflowing so I’ve been doing it this way.  Making sure the top layer of pasta is fully covered with sauce is especially important if you’re using the no-boil noodles or the fresh pasta sheets as they’ll need the liquid to cook. photo 3

Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

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I made this recipe for the first time when I was staying with friends in Boston last month, and it was both simple and delicious. As such, I made it a second time last weekend, when my parents hosted 40 people at their home for my grandparents’ birthday party (yes, they were born a day apart and thus share their party every year). It’s the perfect meal for anything from an intimate dinner to a large group, as it you can do it ahead of time and its easy to serve, but it still seems a little fancier than a lasagna or boring casserole-type dish.

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I found broccoli rabe without incident the first time, but not the second – so when I quadrupled the recipe for the birthday party I used swiss chard instead. Both were great, but Smitten Kitchen suggests regular broccoli or brocolini if you can’t find rabe; I would think any hearty green would work as well (next time I might try kale). The only time consuming part of the dish is stemming and chopping the broccoli rabe/chard, everything else is pretty quick and easy.

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When I made it the first time, I followed the recipe exactly, except that I only added sausage to half (recipe makes one 9 x 13 casserole, but can easily be split into two 8 x 8s). SK lists proportions for a “light” amount of sauce, and recommends you multiply them by 1.5 for a “heavier” sauced dish. I did that, and did not find it overly saucy at all, so that’s what I list below as I really can’t imagine less sauce would be enough. But I suppose its all personal preference – you can check out her version in the link. I also found the original version to be pretty garlicky, although I don’t love garlic so it could be just me. Regardless, when I made it a second time I roasted the garlic (a whole head, drizzled in olive oil and wrapped in foil, at 400 degrees for about half an hour). I then used the same number of cloves called for (3 per batch), and found the garlic flavor to be much more subtle. Again, just personal preference. My friend Lindsay made this the other night and added minced garlic in with the sausage when she cooked it – same idea.

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Finally, when I made four batches for the party, I did four separate casseroles so that I could accommodate as many preferences as possible – three different types of sausage (sweet, spicy, and chicken) and then one vegetarian. When I had the vegetarian version in Boston I really thought it could use something, so this time I roasted a butternut squash. SK suggests mushrooms would be another good alternative – but the squash got rave reviews even from the meat eaters, and seems pretty perfect for this time of year.

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Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens, adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Pasta and Assembly
1 lb. campanelle, or any chunky pasta you like
1 bundle broccoli rabe, swiss chard, or green of your choice (the greens will cook down a lot, so what looks like a ton raw ends up being not that much)
1 lb. Italian sausage (sweet or spicy pork or chicken), casings removed (or one butternut squash)
1 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes

Béchamel Sauce
3 cups whole milk (I used half whole and half 2% the second time and found it to be a little less rich – in a good way)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/8 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (I used a lot)
3 cloves garlic, minced – if roasted, I just gave them a rough smash and chop
Small sprinkle of nutmeg

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions, add broccoli rabe five minutes before pasta is to be finished (if using chard, wait until two minutes before cooking time is up; if using another green, you’ll want it to cook for a lesser time the more delicate it is, or longer the heartier it is – i.e. broccoli would also be five minutes, spinach would be one minute). Drain pasta and greens and set aside in a large bowl.

Brown your sausage in a small amount of olive oil. If you’re making the vegetarian version, peel, seed, and dice a medium-sized butternut squash. You can buy it pre-chopped almost anywhere, but its kind of fun to do it yourself and it really doesn’t take much time. Toss it with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and roast on a well-greased (or parchment-lined) baking sheet at 400 degrees for about half an hour, turning once or twice. If it gets a little crispy, like mine did (as evidenced in the photo above), that’s ok. Either the sausage or the squash can be done ahead of time, and it will make putting the casserole together that much quicker.

To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and stir until smooth, then cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add a small amount of the milk and whisk until combined. Continue to add milk in very small amounts, whisking the whole time – this is where a plastic, flat-bottomed whisk comes in really handy. Once about half of the milk is added and combined, you can add the other half more quickly. Once all the milk is added and the mixture is smooth, add salt, pepper, garlic, and nutmeg and let simmer for about ten minutes (I always worry that mine won’t thicken properly, and thus turn the burner up for about a minute before I turn it down to simmer – no idea if it helps or not but it makes me feel better – regardless, do that at your own risk). Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Finally, add mozzarella, half the parmesan, sausage (or squash), and béchamel to the bowl with the pasta and greens; toss to coat everything with the sauce. Pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 or 3-quart casserole dish, sprinkle the remaining parmesan on top of the pasta, and bake at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Bon Appétit!

Birthday Pasta with Chèvre, Asparagus, and Lemon

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It’s my baby sister’s birthday on Wednesday, so over the weekend I asked her if she wanted to pick a blog topic/recipe for the week in honor of her special day. She responded “Well, my favorite things that you make are: short ribs, squash mac and cheese, tomato soup with crostini, and shredded brussels sprouts. But my favorite food is chèvre, I cannot get enough of it…..maybe you could just do a goat cheese post?” (That’s a verbatim text message, by the way).

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I suppose I could, but that seems like a lot of goat cheese….and this pasta dish looked easy and delicious – and a lot more seasonally appropriate than any of the other options she listed. Only six ingredients, and it takes less than 20 minutes, truly.  Someday I’ll do my Junior League Cookbook’s fried goat cheese salad, though, because it’s also amazing.  And maybe the tomato soup in August, when we have tomatoes fresh off the vine.

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I always forget how much I love asparagus. Tip for trimming: just snap off the bottom with your fingers, and whatever snaps off is the part you don’t want to eat. You probably already know this, but I didn’t until recently so I’m telling you just in case.

Fun fact about tarragon – it smells amazing.

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Just stir the goat cheese into the olive oil, lemon zest (I added juice from half of the zested lemon as well), tarragon, and a little pasta water. Any un-blended chunks of cheese will melt once tossed with the hot pasta.

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I used whole wheat pasta just to make myself feel a little healthier, and it actually turned out delicious with the chèvre (IMHO).

Pasta with Goat Cheese, Lemon and Asparagus, from Bon Apetit by way of Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients
1 pound fusilli (or pasta of your choosing, fusilli works nicely because it’s similar in size to the asparagus pieces, and there’s lots of little crevices for the cheese to stick to)
1 pound slender asparagus spears, trimmed, cut into 1 to 1 1/2-inch pieces (I actually think you could use less pasta and more asparagus, but that’s just me)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel (Smitten Kitchen tells you to add some juice, too)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon, plus sprigs for garnish
1 5 to 5 1/2-ounce log soft fresh goat cheese (I used a peppercorn-flavored log for a little extra flavor)

Preparation
1. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling, (heavily) salted water until almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes (or 2-3 minutes less than package directions). Add asparagus and cook until pasta is tender but still firm to bite, about 2-3 minutes longer.
2. Meanwhile, combine oil, lemon peel (and juice if using), and chopped tarragon in large bowl. Coarsely crumble in goat cheese.
3. Drain pasta and asparagus, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Add hot pasta, asparagus, and 1/4 cup reserved cooking liquid to bowl with cheese mixture. Toss to coat, adding more reserved liquid if dry. Season pasta to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to shallow platter. Garnish with tarragon sprigs. I added parmesan here, too, because I like to add parm to everything – but this dish really doesn’t need it.

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Pairs nicely with a crisp glass of rosé, although really, what doesn’t? Happy Birthday Ab!