Improvised Mac & Cheese

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The Mac & Cheese you see above was created by yours truly without a recipe. I don’t know if you find that impressive, but I’m certainly impressed with myself.

It all started when I made those roasted red peppers you saw in the previous post. The next night, I had those in the fridge and I also had our latest shipment of the Cheese of the Month Club from Murray’s Cheese. That shipment contained both cheddar and Emmentaler, both of which I thought might work in a mac & cheese. Since I also had milk and some flour, I knew I could make this happen.

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Penne with Ramp Pesto, Asparagus & Peas

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I’ll admit, I get lazy when it comes to eating seasonally. It’s easier to pop into the grocery store across the street, where lemons, onions and garlic look the same the whole year round, than it is to march all the way up to the Union Square Greenmarket on a windy or rainy spring day. On a Saturday, however, the rules change: I forcibly remove myself from the world wide web and make a point, especially in spring, summer and fall, to go pay a visit to the Union Square farmers. Sometimes I come home with just honey or maple syrup; other times I buy flowers (the lilacs I bought a few weeks ago made it into my newsletter.) This past Saturday I came home with ramps (despite my ramp-ambivalence) and asparagus and a few hours later I whipped up a dinner (the one you see above) that I declared to be one of the best meals I’ve ever made. And I give 100% of the credit to what I found at the farmer’s market.

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White Lasagna

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When I get invited to dinner parties, these days, I pretty much make it a policy not to take pictures. This takes the pressure off the host or hostess, who may be nervous that their food blogging friend is scrutinizing every bite, preparing to skewer them for all the world to see on his food blog the next morning. Mostly, though it takes the pressure off me: by not taking pictures, there’s no expectation that I’m going to blog about it. So if you’re wondering why the sweet potato souffle you cooked for me didn’t make it on to the blog (that’s just a hypothetical) it’s most likely a function of my policy. Unless, of course, you cook me the lasagna in the photo above.

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Nick and Toni’s Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola

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Once, long ago, I found the following statement on someone else’s food blog: “I’m sick of The Amateur Gourmet, all he cooks is pasta.”

I usually let such cutting criticism roll off me, but this–like a piece of wet spaghetti thrown at the refrigerator–stuck. I haven’t stopped cooking pasta (not by any means: it’s my favorite thing to cook) but I’ve blogged about it less. What was the last pasta recipe I posted? Exactly: it’s been ages. (Actually, it was my Heaven & Hell Cauliflower Pasta two months ago, but let’s ignore that.)

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Heaven & Hell Cauliflower Pasta

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White food is supposedly unappetizing. Tom Colicchio, on “Top Chef,” will mark down a plate of food if everything on it is white or beige. I see his point: there’s something almost clinical about a plate of white food. That’s why parsley’s such a useful ingredient to have around; it’s an easy color-solution, the flecks of green create a vibrancy and sparkle a plain plate of white food just doesn’t have.

That said, there’s always one plate of white food that makes me smile. It makes me smile because it’s white food with a secret; a plate of white food that explodes with flavor. And that, faithful readers, is my Heaven & Hell Cauliflower Pasta.

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Orecchiette with Broccoli & Pancetta

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Here’s something for you to cook this weekend, something from the archives. It comes from The River Cafe Cookbook, a book I no longer own, but no matter. It’s an easy enough recipe, I have it memorized. So easy: I can squeeze it all into this paragraph. Boil a pot of water, add salt. In a large skillet, add cubed pancetta–about two big slices worth. Add a splash of olive oil, raise the heat and let the pancetta start to brown. When it’s getting closer to brown than not-brown, add broccoli florets–about two heads worth–to the salted water. Add 2 or 3 cloves of slivered garlic to the pancetta and some red pepper flakes. (Watch the garlic: don’t let it burn.) When the broccoli is just cooked, but still al dente (1 or 2 minutes) lift with a spider into the skillet with the pancetta and garlic. Now drop a 1 lb box of orecchiette into that same salted broccoli water; stir it all around so the pasta doesn’t stick to itself. Lower the heat on the broccoli and if the pan is too dry, add some pasta cooking water. Keep it on the lowest flame while the pasta cooks. When the pasta’s just al dente (9 minutes later) add with the spider to the skillet with the broccoli and pancetta (it’s ok if some pasta water gets in, it helps make the sauce). Toss all around until everything’s coated and the pasta’s totally cooked through and then, off the heat, add copious amounts of Parmesan cheese and one final drizzle of olive oil. Magnifico! There you have it: Orecchiette with Broccoli & Pancetta.

Pasta alla Norma

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Eggplant is a funny vegetable. It’s not a vegetable that inspires passion, the way that asparagus or ramps do in springtime. It’s not a vegetable that anyone would put on a short list of favorite foods. If the farmer’s market held a prom, I’m pretty certain eggplant would be sitting by itself on a bench, chatting uneasily with a turnip, and waiting—hoping—someone might just ask it to dance.

Well, eggplant, here I am in my tux: waddya say we ménage a trios with some tomato and basil? No, no, silly eggplant, we’re not going to make love—sorry—but we ARE going to make something better: Pasta alla Norma!

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