Monday, May 27, 2013

The Right Place, at the Right Time

Earlier this month, my friend, Tim, flew out to Los Angeles from Philadelphia for a couple of days to visit.  We had a great visit.  Lots of fun, lots of driving around, and lots of food.  Strangely enough...I didn't cook for us once.  If his trip had been a day or so longer, I probably would have.  But for now, it will have to wait until his next trip here.  And there will be one!

As I said, there was a lot of food involved.  Nothing fancy, nothing expensive...but fun and good.  In fact, I think there will be a blog post about our adventures in Los Angeles coming up, so I'm not going to say too much here.  For a tease though...I will say that we had an impromptu visit to a little of the San Gabriel Valley...which is how I ended up making Ricotta and Fava Bean Manicotti.

 Finding yourself in the right place at the right time leads to good things...and sometimes good food.  We were driving down Valley Blvd in San Gabriel when I realized that I missed the turn I wanted to take, so I was going to drive a little further and turn around.   It was only a few blocks up when I see to my left Claro's Italian Market.   This required an immediate stop.   I should have a bumper sticker that reads, 'Will brake for Italian markets.'  Because I will...and we did.  Even though I've got an Italian market right down the street from me...another over in Glendale, and unlimited online sources for Italian goodies, I will always stop at a new market.  Always.

I didn't buy too much.  A nice hunk of ricotta salata, taralli (the kind I haven't had in years!), and pasta.  But not any pasta...but penne.  GIANT penne.  Penne disguising itself as manicotti-size shells.  I had to have them.  And so inexpensive.  Just over a pound for a less than $2.00.  And you know how much I love finding a bargain.

I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with my Giant Penne at first.  It took a day or so before I thought about the Fava Bean Smash I had made the week earlier, my thoughts also going to the ricotta  that was sitting in the fridge...and there you have it.  I figured the smashed beans and ricotta could easily be piped with a pastry bag into those shells.  I had to try.

A note on the sauce:  I made a no-fuss, quick tomato sauce for this.  Essentially sauteing a couple large handfuls of grape tomatoes with some onion and garlic, until the tomatoes pop.  Do what feels right for you.  Whether you use fresh tomatoes or have a can of San Marzano tomatoes in the pantry, keep it fresh and easy.

Fava and Ricotta Manicotti
Makes 6

1/2 cup Fava beans, shelled and blanched
1 cup ricotta cheese
6 Manicotti shells
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 med onion, sliced thin
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon fresh basil, slivered
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup Mozzarella, shredded
salt, to taste

Set a large saucepan of water to boil for the pasta.  Cook the shells a couple of minutes shy of al dente as they'll finish cooking in the oven.  Drain immediately and cover.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.  In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic, and saute until the onions begin to turn clear.  Add the tomatoes and saute, letting the tomatoes soften and pop.  I am not opposed to you adding a little wine here.  It won't hurt.  Turn the heat to low and let the tomatoes reduce, stirring occasionally.  Cook until it's to your liking, adding the basil near the end.  

After you've blanched the Fava beans, smash with the back of a fork until they form a paste, adding a few drops of olive oil as needed to hasten the process.   In a separate bowl, add the ricotta, black pepper, a pinch of salt, and lemon zest.  Mix to combine, then add the Fava bean smash and stir to incorporate all the ingredients.

Put the ricotta and Fava mix into a pastry bag outfitted with a large plain tip.  You could also use a large Ziploc bag with the corner cut off.  I found the easiest way to fill the shells is to fill each shell half-way, then flip the shell and fill from the other end.  That way, you're not trying to squeeze the filling all the way to the other end.  In a small casserole dish (about 1 1/2 quart size), spoon a layer of your sauce on the bottom, then layer the filled pasta shells.  Sprinkle a little of the Parmesan and Mozzarella, then more sauce, and the next layer of Manicotti shells, sauce, and cheese.  Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes.  Remove the foil, then bake for an additional 5 minutes.  Let the dish rest for 5 minutes before serving.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Summer Kitchen

My two favourite weather terms I've learned living in Southern California are 'May Gray' and 'June Gloom.'  These are conditions where the marine layer (similar to fog) is so thick, you awaken in the morning to grey skies and a cool nip in the air.  Some days the marine layer breaks up in the late morning and the sun will finally poke its rays out, and sometimes you won't see the sun until mid-to-late afternoon.  It's been so thick that we've had days where the gray and gloom last all day long.  So far in this month of May, there has been little gray.  In fact, we're about to have a few days of 90 degree plus weather.  My phone told me today that it was 99 degrees at 4pm. Too early, too much, too soon.

I'm pretty sure I've written about it before...when the temps start creeping towards triple digits, I hate to cook.   Yes, I will admit that I have moments of insanity when I turn on the oven to a blazing 450 degrees in crazy hot Summer weather because the craving for pizza won't abate or I can't be without cake for dessert.
But if the weather is consistently hot, this is where I turn to the Summer Kitchen.  

In the Summer Kitchen, I happily subsist on antipasti platters--sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner, sometimes both in the same day.  The fridge will be stocked with olives, cheese, salami, and roasted red pepper strips (made when the weather was friendlier).  Of course, there are always salads made with no hard and fast rules about what to add.  Fruits, vegetables, cold pasta, rice, and no frou frou dressings.  A drizzle of good olive oil and a splash of vinegar or lemon juice will do.

Then there are the minimal cooking options:  no sauteing, no sweating onions.  No more energy used than what it takes to boil a pot of water, okay...maybe two.  One pot to blanch some Fava beans and the other to cook a handful of cous cous.  You can eat this as a side dish, or if you top a salad with it, you'll have a light, summer meal.

Cous Cous with Fava Bean Smash
Serves 2

1 cup shelled Fava beans
1 large tomato, chopped
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup olives
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 cup cous cous, prepared
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Prepare the cous cous and set aside.  If you have already prepared fava beans (I've heard that Trader Joe's carries them cooked and vacuum packed), you don't have to  worry about shelling them.  Some people are turned off by having to do the work, but it's really not too bad and not terribly time-consuming.  If you have fresh beans still in the pod, remove the beans from the pods.  Bring a small pot of water to a boil and add the beans.  Blanche beans for about 4-5 minutes.  Prepare a bowl of ice water and after blanching the beans, spoon them into the ice water.  To shell the blanched beans, you can either cut a small slit along the edge or pinch an edge to break open the shell and squeeze out the bean.  

Place the shelled beans in a small bowl and with the back of a fork, smash the beans to a paste.  Add the olive oil a little at a time to make the paste a little smoother.  Add salt and pepper, as necessary.  

Divide the cous cous between two plates or bowls, adding the tomato and olives.  Use whatever olives you like, I had dry oil-cured black and cracked Greek green olives on hand.  Spoon the Fava smash atop the cous cous.  Sprinkle with feta and lemon zest (or add the lemon zest to the Fava bean smash).  Salt and pepper to taste.  

As I mentioned before, if you make a big salad, this is amazing mixed in.  I love the slight warmth of the cous cous with the cold, crisp salad leaves.