Spring Fare: Spaghetti Carbonara Style with Spinach, Bacon, and Fried Egg

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I'm a huge fan of Spaghetti Carbonara. Unfortunately, in this country we have many versions that bastardize the original concept -- tender spaghetti noodles tossed simply in rendered crispy pancetta, and lightly beaten fresh egg. The heat from the spaghetti cooks the eggs delicately, creating an irresistible thickened "sauce" that's light and incredibly flavorful. Add a salty bite from freshly grated parmesan cheese and it's a perfect bowl of pasta. Truly.

But unfortunately the classic carbonara has been destroyed by many cream-based versions. In place of the raw egg, Americans favor the "safer" (but way fattier) heavy cream to achieve the desired consistency. I find it silly and totally unnecessary, and the cream -- although normally I'm a huge fan of using cream in various dishes -- is totally inappropriate here with pancetta and spaghetti. I feel it's better suited for thicker noodles that can withstand its weight, like fettucine or even manicotti.

At any rate, we had some spring-type weather here in Seattle for a few weeks and it inspired me. My local farm delivery gave me farm-fresh eggs and a gorgeous bunch of spinach. I had some bacon in the fridge (there's always bacon in my fridge) and so I decided to do a spin on the classic, but still keeping the integrity of the dish. Thus this recipe was born. If you're ever in the mood for Breakfast For Dinner, this is the perfect meal. And honestly, it's the best hangover dish ever. Enjoy it!

Spaghetti Carbonara Style with Spinach, Bacon, and Fried Egg
1 lb box spaghetti
kosher salt
1 cup pasta cooking water, reserved
1/4 cup bacon or pancetta, cut into small bite-sized pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh spinach, rinsed well
extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper -- course grind if possible
1/2 cup freshly grated, imported good quality parmesan cheese
4 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil (for frying eggs)
4 eggs

Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. I like to bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add a good amount of kosher salt so the consistency of the water tastes like salt water from the sea. This helps season your pasta too so it all tastes wonderful. Before draining the pasta, take out about a cup of the water it boiled in -- this will help thicken the sauce you make with the pancetta.

While the pasta cooks, heat a large saute pan to medium-high. Add the bacon all at once and cook, stirring often, until crisp and delicious. No need to add oil first because the bacon (or pancetta) will render its own fat, meaning the fat will melt once it starts cooking. Turn heat down to low and add the garlic, then mix to combine. Cook about a minute until fragrant. Add the drained spaghetti noodles into the saute pan and about half of the reserved pasta water. Add the spinach all at once and some pepper to taste (personally I like a lot with this dish), then using tongs, toss the spaghetti with the spinach and bacon-garlic mixture. The heat from the pan will gently wilt the spinach. Take off of heat and add the cheese all at once, tossing again to combine. Set aside.

In a separate nonstick skillet, heat the vegetable oil. Crack the four eggs into the pan and cook sunnyside up (or over-easy if desired). Cook just until the egg is set -- you can break it into the hot pasta to finish cooking.

Quickly portion out the pasta among 4 serving bowls and top each with an egg. Season each egg with a small pinch of salt and more pepper and serve immediately.

This dish is done very, very fast (start to finish around 15 minutes). It's best served piping hot, straight from the stove. If you plan to add a side salad or any other side dishes or dessert, best to prepare those before doing this dish. It reheats generally well, but it's really best fresh because of the egg.

Week Night Yum Yum: Polenta with Arugula and Balsamic Portobello Mushrooms

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I know the picture sucks, but this is so yummy and good. Vegetarian, lighter fare, healthy (thank you polenta!) and most importantly -- delicious, this meal comes together in a little over a half hour making it perfect for weeknight meals. If you're in Lent now (as we are), then omit the cream to make it a Friday-friendly food. If not, then proceed with cream and as much parmesan as you can handle!

The addition of cream and parmesan makes an otherwise uneventful polenta super creamy and decadent. Using broth adds immense flavor, and is instantly the difference between good polenta and bad polenta. Arugula adds a nice, slightly peppery bite and great unexpected color, not to mention vitamins and minerals. To makes this a meal I top the polenta with meaty sliced portobello mushrooms that have been sauteed in good olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. Together it's a perfect meal, easy to pull together on a week night and delicious enough for a weekend treat. Enjoy!

Polenta with Arugula and Balsamic Portobello Mushrooms
for the polenta:
2 cups vegetable broth (or chicken)
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup good quality polenta
1 cup arugula
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

for the mushrooms:
2 large portobello mushrooms, stems cut off
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3/4 Tbs fresh rosemary leaves (about the amount off of one small stem)
good imported balsamic vinegar

To prepare the polenta, place the broth in a saucepan and bring up to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium-low and add salt and polenta all at once. Whisk vigorously -- careful, the mixture will pop up towards you once you introduce the cold polenta into the hot broth, but will die down in seconds. Whisk constantly for 5 minutes on low heat. Switch to a wooden spoon and continue to cook on low heat another 20 minutes, or until polenta is smooth and cooked through (doesn't have a gritty taste anymore). Once cooked, fold in the arugula and cream. The heat from the polenta will cause the arugula to wilt and turn a nice dark green. Add the cheese all at once and stir to combine. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

To prepare the mushrooms, take the mushroom caps and slice them into 1/4" thick slices. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan until hot. Add the mushrooms and toss in oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and continue to cook stirring only once or twice, about 8 minutes or until mushrooms are cooked through and have a nice caramelization. Add the garlic and rosemary leaves and continue to cook another 2 minutes, stirring often to avoid burning the garlic and rosemary. Turn heat down to low and remove pan from heat. Add a good splash of vinegar (about 1/8 of a cup or so) and return the pan to the heat (you're removing the pan because the acid in the vinegar will cause it to splatter up and bubble up very quickly and violently; this way is safer). Cook on low heat, tossing the mushrooms in the balsamic to coat. You'll notice the vinegar will begin to reduce and get more concentrated. Once this happens and the mushrooms are nicely coated, remove from pan and serve. Serve hot or room temperature.

To serve, plate hot polenta into bowls then top with some of the mushrooms.

*You can also make these seperately. Serve the polenta on its own and the mushrooms on toasted chiabatta bread for a delicious bruschetta appetizer.

Week Night Yum Yum: Low Carb Curry Halibut "Tacos"

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

This recipe may sound a little bizarre, but I promise it's really tasty and added bonus: low carb and low fat for all of your new year's resolutions!

I take halibut and quickly marinate it in olive oil, salt, pepper and good curry powder with some garlic and lime juice. A quick 5 minute saute in the pan with a lid on makes for a perfectly cooked fish -- soft and flaky and not overdone. The curry adds a nice warmth to the fish without overpowering its delicate flavor and texture. In place of carby tortillas I use crisp fresh lettuce leaves. For added texture I make sure to keep them nice and cold until just before serving -- the crisp coldness of the lettuce contrasts nicely to the warm fish. For more flavor and color I add pickled red onions, sliced hard-boiled eggs, fiesty jalapeno for some heat and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro to brighten up the flavors. These "tacos" are great on their own as a meal with some black beans or a fun more sustainable appetizer. Or, add a few more dishes to make a tapas-style dinner! Enjoy!

Curry Halibut "Tacos"
2 filets halibut -- boned and skinless
2 Tbsp olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper -- preferably set to a courser ground
1/2 tsp good quality curry powder
1 clove garlic, crushed or roughly chopped
juice of 1 lime
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced thinly
1 jalapeno pepper, sliced thinly
fresh cilantro (optional)
1 head curly romaine lettuce (or butter lettuce), leaves left whole and washed and spun dry

for the pickled onions:
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Place the halibut, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, curry powder, garlic and lime juice in a bowl or large ziploc bag. Toss to combine, gently massaging the marinade into the fish. Let stand at least 1 hour, up to 6. When ready to cook, bring fish out onto counter for 5 minutes at room temperature to take the chill off.

To make the tacos, heat a medium-large nonstick pan to high heat. Remove the fish fillets from the marinade and shake off the garlic pieces (they will burn in the pan otherwise). Place the fish in the pan and cover with lid. Add a little more oil if you need it. Cook with lid on for 5 minutes or until fish is firm but still moist and tender and delicate. Using a spatula, roughly chop the fish up into larger bite-sized pieces.

To assemble the tacos, place a few larger lettuc leaves out on a plate or platter. Divide the fish among the lettuce leaves, then top with some egg, jalapeno, cilantro and pickled onions. Serve.

To make the pickled onions, simply combine the onion, vinegar, and salt in a bowl and toss to combine. Let stand at least 30 minutes or preferably a couple of hours to overnight. Can be stored in an air-tight container for a few days, and it only gets better with age!

Mexican Chicken Pot Pie

Yes, the pot pie obsession continues...

...but this time it takes a turn south of the border for a Mexican-inspired one pot meal that's sure to warm your heart on these cold winter nights. The filling is based on my chicken tortilla soup recipe, fortified with even more flavor and texture by adding some enchillada sauce. The topping is not the flaky crust you're used to, but rather sweet cornbread mixed with sharp cheddar cheese. You'll love the warmth and spice from cumin and oregano, tender pieces of chicken and bright cilantro. This recipe makes two larger individual pies or four smaller appetizer portions, and can be easily doubled for a larger family sized pie.

Mexican Chicken Pot Pie
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into small cubes
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp olive oil (or your favorite cooking oil)
1 small white onion, chopped small
1 large celery stalk, chopped small
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped small
1/2 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped small
1/2 jalapeno, minced (optional)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 roma tomatoes, chopped small
1 bay leaf
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp ancho chile powder
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/3 cup enchalada sauce
about 1.5 cups chicken broth
1-2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 1 tsp water
1 package cornbread mixed according to package directions
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Season the chicken with a good amount of salt and pepper and toss in a bowl to coat.

Heat the oil in a large pot until hot but not smoking. Add the chicken all at once and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes on medium-high heat. Turn the heat down to medium-low and using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the chicken to a bowl and set aside. Don't worry if the chicken isn't cooked all the way through because you'll be adding it back to finish cooking in the broth. Add the onions, celery, carrot, and poblano pepper all at once into the reserved oil (add more oil if you need to) and season the vegetables with salt and pepper to taste. Turn in the pot to coat with the oil and cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened. Once softened, add the jalapeno, garlic, and tomatoes and cook another minute or two, stirring occasionally. Add the bay leaf, cumin, chile powder, and oregano and stir to combine. Add the enchilada sauce and broth and mix to combine. Turn heat up to medium-high and bring the soup up to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to medium and let soup simmer until liquid is reduced a little bit, about 15-20 minutes. Add a lid on top if the liquid begins to reduce too quickly, and add more broth if you want a saucier pot pie.

While the soup cooks you can mix your cornbread mixture in a seperate bowl according to package directions. Add the cup of cheese and fold in to combine. Set aside to thicken.

Once the soup has simmered and liquid has reduced to your desired amount of sauce, taste and adjust with seasonings to taste. Add the cilantro and the cornstarch mixture and mix to combine. The cornstarch mixture will thicken the soup base to a traditional pot pie gravy conistency. Portion out the soup into oven-safe bowls and let cool a couple of minutes (or if making one larger pie, pour the soup mixture into the large pie pan or whatever you are using).

Working in in batches, gently spoon out the cornbread mixture on top of the soup mixture. Spread it out evenly, careful not to mix the soup into the cornbread mixture. Don't worry if it sinks a little bit into the soup, but be careful not to mix it all up or else you'll end up more with a casserole (not a bad thing, but we're going for a pot pie here).

Place the container/s on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil for easy clean up and place in the center rack of your oven. Cook until cornbread is set on top and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 20 minutes. If you see the top of the cornbread is browning but the center is still quite wet, cover the top lightly with aluminum foil while the center cooks.

Serve piping hot and enjoy!