Orecchiette with Greens and Beans

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about motherhood so far is introducing our daughter to new foods. It’s been so much fun watching her take a tentative bite, have an initial look of shock or horror, suck on her thumb for comfort while she pieces it out whether she likes the taste or not, then signalling that she’s willing to give it another try by popping her little mouth open. We soon know whether it’s met her approval when she smiles broadly and leans forward, eager for another bite. So far, the only thing that she has flat-out, consistently refused is cauliflower, and being a recent but still wary cauliflower convert myself, I can’t blame her.

Being foodies ourselves, I hope that we can continue to cultivate her palate, but I know that in all likelihood, this openness to eating green, leafy vegetables and trying new things is sadly unlikely to last. In the meantime though, I’ve had fun experimenting with some of the techniques and suggestions from What Chefs Feed Their Kids, a cookbook with ideas for meals that both parents and kids at all stages can enjoy together. This dish is inspired by that book’s Wild Greens Puree, a delicious mess of wilted kale, collard greens, spinach, basil and parsley. Our daughter runs hot and cold for that puree, although lately, she eats it more consistently when blended with a white bean dip. On the days when she refuses it, John and I don’t mind, scooping it up with tortilla chips while sipping some pre-dinner martinis as we complete her bedtime routine. Yeah, it’s just that good.

Recently, I found myself with a bunch of leftover greens and an extra can of white beans in our cupboard after we made some purees for her meals. The cookbook suggests thinning the greens puree into a soup for the adults, but I liked the idea of making a heartier meal and using the greens and beans in a pasta dish with some crumbled sausage. The one issue was that I felt like just mixing sautéed greens into the pasta would mean stringy, difficult to eat pieces of vegetables, so I decided to cook down my mix of green vegetables, then puree them into a slick sauce to coat the pasta. I browned some crumbled, spicy Italian sausage then sautéed some shallots and garlic in the rendered fat. I then piled on the green vegetables– kale, mustard greens, and spinach. Once wilted, I added the mix to a blender with a splash of chicken stock and pureed it until I had a bright green sauce. This went back into the pan with the sausage, some cannellini beans, and the pasta, then mixed to coat. A sprinkle of fresh basil added some brightness. This was delicious, and I love the fact that we were eating a combination that our daughter loves to eat too. Next attempt on this front: pureed, roasted eggplant for her; baba ganoush for us!

  • 1 lb dried orecchiette pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 lb bulk Italian sausage (sweet or hot)
  • 2 large shallots, halved and sliced
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 bunch each: kale, spinach, and mustard greens, leaves removed from stems and roughly chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 15oz can cannellini beans, drained
  • 1/4 cup torn basil leaves

Cook pasta about 2 minutes shy of package directions in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Reserve about 1 cup of pasta cooking water when ready to drain.

While water for pasta comes to a boil, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sausage and cook until browned and caramelized, about 7-8 minutes. Remove sausage from pan, leaving rendered fat behind. Add the shallots, garlic, and red pepper flakes and saute until shallots are softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the chopped mixed greens in 1/3 batches, wilting down one batch before adding another. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. When the leaves have all cooked down, add all the contents of the pan to a blender with the chicken stock and puree until greens are finely chopped and you have a smooth sauce. You might add some of the pasta cooking water to achieve your desired consistency. Adjust seasoning to taste. Add the pasta, the cooked sausage, drained beans, and the puree to the pasta cooking pot and mix until combined. Add more reserved pasta cooking water if mixture gets too dry. Spoon onto plates and garnish with torn basil. Serve with grated cheese if you wish.

Makes 6-8 servings.

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White Pizza

I used to think that white pizza was just sauceless. Maybe the crust would be crisped up with olive oil, then topped with cheese and other toppings. It would still make sense to me as a pizza concept, unlike that horror of horrors– a cheeseless pizza, but I would just assume to call it flat bread if it didn’t have a sweet and spicy tomato sauce.

But I’m married to someone who hails from Youngstown, Ohio where they take their pizza, be it regular or white, very seriously. John knows his Youngstown pizza, having worked at a pizza parlor, in violation of child labor laws as he’ll proudly admit to you. When I told him that I wanted to make a white pizza, he told me that the white pizzas he grew up with weren’t sauceless at all. The crusts were topped with a garlic butter, but somehow, he wasn’t sure how, maybe it was an interaction with the cheese, it would be almost creamy. White pizza was essentially cheesy garlic bread, but somehow, so much more.

So that got me thinking– how could I make a garlicky, buttery, creamy sauce for my white pizza? I suppose I could try making an alfredo sauce, but I found the idea of topping a garlic and cheese sauce with more cheese a little disturbing. I guess that means even I have my cheese limits. Instead, I made a garlicky bechamel sauce, spread that on my crust, then topped it with chopped spinach, slices of prosciutto, and a mix of mozzarella and provolone. I loved the mix of colors– the specks of pink and dark green on a creamy white base, and when baked, the sauce thickened, melding with the cheese and crust, making it almost custardy to contrast with the crispy crust and salty prosciutto. Bellissimo!

  • Your favorite pizza crust, be it home-made, pizza parlor or store-bought, or from a tube.
  • olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1.5 teaspoons)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1.25 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 10 oz frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry in a clean kitchen towel or paper towel
  • 3 oz sliced prosciutto, torn into bite size strips
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella and provolone mix
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn

Preheat a pizza stone in the oven, set to 450 degrees F. Roll out pizza dough to 16 inches in diameter and let rest. In a small sauce pan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the garlic and let the garlic cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Whisk in flour and continue to cook for another minute. Turn the heat up to medium high then whisk in milk. Whisk constantly until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Place the crust on a pizza peel or onto the pizza stone to assemble. Brush the crust with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Pour the bechamel sauce on the crust and spread it out until there is a 1/2 inch border of crust. Top with the spinach and prosciutto before covering with the shredded cheese. Place the pizza in the oven on the bottom rack, placed in the lowest setting of your oven. Bake for 10-14 minutes or until crust is golden and cheese is spotted brown in places. Top with torn basil before cutting into wedges and serving.

Baked Penne with Spinach & Prosciutto

One of my favorite childhood memories is when my family would spend a weekend day making a large pot of meat sauce. Dad learned how to make the sauce from the brief time period when his bachelorhood corresponded with his service in the Air Force. His roommate was Italian-American and only knew how to make spaghetti sauce, while Dad only knew how to make one thing as well, fried rice. The two would alternate meals, spaghetti one night, fried rice the other.

I don’t remember much about the recipe other than it involved lots of cans of tomatoes and tomato paste and the emptied cans doubled in duty by acting as the measure for water added to the sauce. I also remember that my favorite part of the sauce was the texture added from slices of button mushrooms, probably because it reminded me of my favorite soup at the time- Campbell’s canned cream of mushroom.

When we would make the sauce, my job was to hover over the pot with a large mound of half frozen ground round. I’d relish the feel of the icy crystals in the meat as I’d tear off small chunks of it then drop it into the pot of bubbling tomatoes and vegetables. There’d be a satisfying plop and splash, so the task was fun for both the tactile sensations and the mess making potential. Once all the ingredients were added, the sauce would simmer on the stove for hours, filling the house with the aromas of tomato, garlic, and beef.

The smells just heightened my anticipation for one of my favorite meals: baked mostaccioli. Ziti pasta mixed with the sauce and piles and piles of stretchy, milky mozzarella cheese. The pasta would absorb the flavors of the sauce yet there’d still be the little pools of bright orange grease that bubbled to the top. You know that you frown at that grease, but you also secretly know that’s a sign that you’re going to have a good meal.

So it’s no surprise that I frequently turn to baked pastas whenever I feel like I need comfort. Like I said, I don’t remember the ratios for the sauce we made while growing up, but rather than trying to recreate that sauce of my memory, I like experimenting with and changing around the ingredients that I put into my tomato sauces. I always start with a base of ground onion, carrot, and celery for sweetness and will add a splash of white wine for a subtle tang, but with this version, I rendered slices of prosciutto in the pot first to add a slightly salty, meaty flavor. As a result this sauce was lighter than your regular meat sauce while the prosciutto imparted some nice texture, a little crispy and chewy, to contrast with the firmness of the penne pasta.

To boost up the vegetal flavors, I added some thawed, frozen chopped spinach to the pasta so that there were threads of green contrasting with the bright red sauce. The spinach also makes me feel a little less guilty if I decide to forgo a salad and just enjoy a big bowl of baked pasta for dinner.

  • olive oil
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3 oz prosciutto, cut into 1/4 inch wide slivers
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 1 large carrot, chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 1 large celery stalk, chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 3-4 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 16 oz dried penne pasta
  • 10 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry in a kitchen towel
  • 4 cups mozzarella cheese
  • 2 tbsp parmesan, shredded
  • salt and pepper

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Cook the prosciutto slices for about 5 minutes, or until they look slightly crisp and are an opaque pink color. While prosciutto cooks, toss the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add this mixture to the pot with the tablespoon of butter and cook for 3-5 minutes or until softened. Add the white wine and cook until the wine has mostly evaporated, another 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste so that all the vegetables are covered and the mixture thickens a little. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium low and let simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in basil leaves.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook penne just 1 minute shy of the package instructions for al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Mix in the squeeze-dried spinach, using your fingers to break it apart. In a large baking dish, add half of the pasta mixture then sprinkle on half of the mozzarella cheese. Add the rest of the pasta and cover it with the remaining cheese and parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is a little browned on top then let stand for 10 minutes before serving.