Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rigatoni al Forno with Ratatouille Vegetables

Even though it is mid-October, I am still bringing home my favorite late summer vegetables from the farmers’ market (eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash and peppers). 

Unfortunately, the weather has cooled to the point that more often than not I’m not in the mood for the dishes I usually prepare with these foods.  Still, because these vegetables are still so beautiful…and because I’m not quite ready to let summer go for the year, I continue to purchase them.  Fortunately, these vegetables also lend themselves to a few treatments more appropriate for the cooler days of early fall   Favorites like ratatouille, moussaka, and eggplant, pepper & chickpea stew are all likely to appear on my table during the cooler days of September and October. 

Most of the aforementioned dishes are a bit time consuming to make…ratatouille (my favorite), in particular.  And, as I mentioned in my last post, my schedule has been pretty busy of late.   Consequently, I haven’t had the time to make a big batch of ratatouille this year.  But this past week I was still able to satisfy my craving for the flavors of ratatouille by making a relatively quick baked pasta that uses the same combination of vegetables.  

To make the pasta, the eggplant, peppers and squash are simply roasted and then combined with pasta, cheese and a quick tomato sauce.  It could hardly be easier.

I should mention that the tomato sauce is quick because it uses canned tomatoes.  I’m still bringing home beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes from the market, but their supply is dwindling to the point that I only want to enjoy them raw since I know it will be many months before I can have them that way again.  Good canned tomatoes (use imported San Marzanos, if you can) make a very nice sauce.  And if you happen to have a couple of cups of homemade summer tomato sauce in your pantry or freezer, you can of course use it in this dish (it would be super delicious).

My baked ratatouille pasta really hit the spot.  It doesn’t have the rich depth of a long simmered ratatouille, but on a cool night—in the midst of a busy week—it tasted oh-so-good…   perfect for my mood….and the season. 

Rigatoni al Forno with Ratatouille Vegetables

4 to 6 T. olive oil, divided
1 small to medium onion (6 oz.), minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes in juice (preferably San Marzano)
1 eggplant (2/3 to 3/4 lb.)
2 to 3 zucchini (about 8 oz.)
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
3/4 lb. rigatoni, or other short sturdy, tubular pasta
6 oz. coarsely grated Fontina
2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan and/or Pecorino

Warm a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a shallow saucepan set over medium heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden—about 10 to 20 minutes (add more oil if the onions seem dry). Add garlic and cook until fragrant—about 2 minutes.  Pass the tomatoes, along with their juice through a food mill fitted with the coarse disc (or pulse in the food processor or simply break up with your hands).   Add the tomatoes along with salt & freshly ground pepper to taste. Simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened—about 20 to 30 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.   When finished, you should have about 2 cups tomato sauce.

While the sauce cooks, prepare the rest of the vegetables.  Top and tail the eggplant and zucchini.  Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slabs, then crosswise into 1/2-inch sticks.  Slice the zucchini on the diagonal a scant 1/2-inch thick, then slice into strips so that each piece resembles a quill shape. Toss the eggplant and zucchini in 2 to 3 T. of olive oil and season with salt & pepper. Spread the vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet (if your baking sheet is too crowded, divided the vegetables between two sheets and rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom half way through the cooking time).  Roast the vegetables at 425° to 450°. Do not stir the vegetables until they have begun to take on some color—and then do so carefully, using a pancake turner-type spatula to scoop the vegetables off the sheet and turn them over. You should only need to stir once...if at all. The vegetables are done when they are golden and tender—about 20 to 25 minutes total. 

While the vegetables roast, cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips.  If the strips are very long, cut them in half horizontally.  Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Season well with salt (it should taste salty—you'll want at least 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons per quart of water). Add the rigatoni and cook until almost al dente (pastas that will be baked should be a bit firmer than those that will be sauced and served right away), drain.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, tomato sauce, eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Stir to combine. Add the Fontina and fold in just until evenly distributed—the cheese does not have to melt. Transfer the mixture to an oiled 2 1/2 quart shallow baking dish. 

Scatter the Parmesan and Pecorino over the top.   

Transfer to a 375° to 400° oven and bake until hot through, tinged with brown on the top and bubbling around the edges—about 20 to 25 minutes.  For even more browning, run the pasta under the broiler after it is hot through.  Serves 5 to 6.

Variation (30 Aug 2017):  If you like, you can replace the canned tomatoes with fresh.  Use 2 lbs of vine ripened tomatoes.  Core the tomatoes.  Halve them horizontally (through their equator).  Using a large-holed grater set on a plate or pie pan, grate the tomatoes by holding the cut side of the tomatoes against the grater and grating until just the skin remains in your palm.  Add the fresh tomatoes exactly as you would the canned--there is no need to run them through a food mill.  

Variation (6 Sept 2018):  I had everything in the house to make this pasta...except I was short on Fontina (and even good melters...cheeses).  So I made it anyway and made up the difference by spooning blobs of whole milk ricotta over the surface before the final scattering of Pecorino/Parmesan.  I think I used 2 or 3 oz. of ricotta.  It was delicious!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Old Favorite....Russian Tea Cakes

Many of my childhood food memories revolve around my maternal grandmother’s kitchen and dining room table.  She was a fine cook and baker…from a long line of fine cooks and bakers.  It is therefore a bit strange that there are really only two cookies that I associate with her:  a soft, cake-y, chocolate drop cookie (with raisins and topped with a smear of chocolate frosting) and Russian Tea Cakes.  The name of the former is lost to me—I’m not sure I ever knew it.  They were just “Grandmom’s cookies” to me.  I have never run across them anywhere other than in her home.  The Russian Tea Cakes, on the other hand, are familiar to most Americans…although the name varies from family to family.  Some know them as Mexican Wedding Cakes….and sometimes you will find them called Pecan Snowballs (or some variant thereof).  I learned to call them Russian Tea Cakes in Junior High Home Ec class.  My grandmother called hers, “Tea Balls.” 

Whatever you call them, they are an addictive and delicious little cookie….tender, buttery, nutty and not too sweet.  I have been hungry for them recently.  I used to make them all the time, but for some reason I haven’t made them in a while.  So yesterday, I made a batch…just for me…just because.  I am sharing the recipe here, not because it is rare or unusual, but because they were what I happened to be baking at home…and because it has been a while since I have posted anything.  (It has been an unusually busy late summer and fall season for me.  Perhaps this accounts in part for my desire to make a cookie that reminds me of a simpler, slower time.)

As I said, this is not an unusual recipe.  The recipe I use is the one I learned to make in Junior High…it’s most likely from Betty Crocker.  (I can’t imagine it’s too different from my grandmother’s recipe.)  Over the years I have made two small changes to it.  Around the time I started cooking/baking professionally, I switched to unsalted butter for all of my baking (and cooking).   I’m sure the original recipe used salted butter.  If you like, you can increase the salt to a half teaspoon to account for this change, but I never have.  I like the pure, butter-y, nutty flavor as it is.

The second change came about one time when I was feeling particularly lazy and instead of chopping the pecans by hand, I threw them into the food processor with all of the flour and processed until the nuts were very finely chopped—much more finely than if I had chopped them by hand.  (Without the presence of the flour you would never be able to process them so fine without turning them into an oily mess.) The resulting cookies were especially moist and tender.  I have prepared them this way ever since. 

The Tea Cakes I made were just the thing…perfectly satisfying my craving for something familiar and special, all at the same time.  New recipes are great, but sometimes an old friend is even better.  If you are feeling a bit nostalgic—and I find that Fall, with the return of school and the coming of the holidays, brings on those kinds of feelings—take a minute to prepare a recipe that is old and well loved.  It just might be the perfect momentary antidote to a too busy schedule, a gray afternoon, or a bad day at work.  And if you have never made a version of these delicious little pecan cookies, you should give this recipe a try.  It’s fast, easy…and I think there’s none better.     


Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup (1/2 lb.) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (2 oz.) powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
2 1/4 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. (3 oz.) pecans

Briefly cream the butter and sugar.  Beat in the vanilla.  Set aside.

Place the flour and pecans in a food processor and process until the pecans are finely ground—some will have disappeared into the flour, but there should still be small, discernible pieces of pecans.  

Add to the butter mixture with the salt.  Stir to form a soft dough.

Mold into 1-inch balls and bake on an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet at 400° until set—about 8 to 10 minutes.  The cookies will have lost their wet look, will have puffed slightly and cracked.  The bottoms of the cookies will be golden brown.  

Remove from the oven and cool for one minute on the baking sheet.  Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and let cool for five minutes. 

While the cookies are still warm (not hot), toss in powdered sugar (be gentle, they break). 

Finish cooling on a wire rack. 

If you like, use a sieve to dredge the cookies lightly with a final coating of powdered sugar.  Store air tight.

Makes 48 cookies.

Note:  The cookies should still be slightly warm when tossed in the powdered sugar so that the sugar will adhere…but they shouldn’t be hot.   If the cookies are too hot, the sugar will melt to a frosting-like coating.