Sep 142012

Pasta Fazool

I am such a huge sucker for hearty bean stews. The moment that the summer heat shows that it might be wavering in its resolve, I’m pulling out all my cookbooks and playing match-maker with my stash of beans. Borlotti beans often find a starring role in my kitchen in every imaginable application, and this soup is no exception.

Pasta e fagioli (aka pasta fazool) is a dish born of frugality, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be boring. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to find bland versions of this soup, with boring beans, mushy pasta, and a lack-luster broth. This soup rectifies all those wrongs and then some, all without requiring you to slave over a stove for hours or leave a pot simmering all day. Served in small portions, it makes an excellent appetizer (or primi if you’re going authentic-Italian-style), or scooped up into bigger bowls, it’s hearty enough to be a meal in itself. Either way, it’s a delicious and welcome addition to any table — whatever the weather!

Pasta Fazool!

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Sep 272009

I have been meaning to post this for a loooooonnnggg time. In fact, if the word “long” was as long as the length of time I’ve waited to post this recipe, it would be approximately sixty-three syllables long. But I digress.

Rancho Gordo borlotti beans

I’ve long had a soft spot for minestrone. It’s such great comfort food, and super-healthy to boot. I suppose that soup is normally a fall or winter endeavor, but here I’m going to give a Tucson summer (the fact that it’s late September is irrelevant – it’s in the upper nineties today) the finger and make this soup anyway. That’ll show the bloody weather!

There I go with my digressions again.

I’ve been through a lot of phases with this soup. I first got hooked on it at an Italian restaurant when I was a teenager, so when I started cooking a lot of vegetable soups after I moved to Alaska I decided to try this one out. To be honest, I hated my first attempt. I hadn’t yet started making my own chicken stock, and this was when I learned the hard way that using commercial chicken broth as the base for a soup is Officially a Bad Idea because it is Utterly Repugnant. However, at the time, I didn’t know that was the cause, so I just thought the recipe was a dud.

Many months later, something strange came over me and I decided to try it again – on unsuspecting dinner guests, no less. This time I was using homemade stock, and when I put the stuff in my mouth I had a foodgasm. It was that good. But because I am crazy, I am hardly ever 100 percent satisfied with a recipe, no matter how good it is. I decided that what this soup needed was an improvement in the bean department. Since then, I’ve tried all manner of beans: pinto, cannellini, kidney, great Northern whites, and heavenly borlottis. But all of these were canned and none of them were quite right.

Enter Rancho Gordo beans! These heavenly heirloom beans are as fresh as dried beans can get, especially when compared with lowly supermarket beans that are more than likely about five years old, which explains why those inferior beans cook slowly, unevenly, and blandly. This company carries many little-known and rare varieties of beans, including – look out for the squeeing – borlottis! I tried them for the first time when I was throwing together this soup, and finally, I have found my 100 percent satisfaction. These creamy, velvety, supremely flavorful beans add an entirely new level of flavor that ties minestrone together perfectly. It is definitely worth the time to find and cook the beans. And considering that I only just discovered the key to bean bliss, it was also worth the wait in posting this recipe!

Minestrone soup

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May 142008

I love orzo. It’s such a hybrid – it looks like it wants to be rice, but it’s got the taste and texture of pasta, and because of its small shape it’s perfect in side dishes and salads. This dish that I’m about to share with you is my favorite orzo dish. There’s really nothing not to love about it – it has lots of highly flavored elements that manage to not compete with each other, a couple of highly nutritious veggies, and a wonderfully textured sauce that tastes rich and creamy without actually being either of those things.

Fresh cherry tomatoes star in this dish
Nikon D50

This recipe also has the bonus factor of minimal stove use, which is key in the summer. You use a stove but it’s much more about mixing things together at the end than it is about simmering for hours. I love taking this dish to dinner parties because people tend to expect a typical pasta salad dish – made with mayonnaise and flat-tasting – until they actually try it and realize how much complex and fresh tasting it is than what they were expecting. So give it a try and let it change your ideas of a pasta salad.

Perfect on a summer day!
Nikon D50

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Jan 262008

Growing up, I never quite understood why chicken noodle soup was supposed to be such great comfort food. Then again, all I had had back then were Campbell’s or otherwise canned versions, and frankly, I think it would be more comforting to be beaten up with a can of soup than it would be to eat that not-very-chickeny-really-freakin’-salty-and-gross stuff.

But then I remembered my Mom’s famous turkey soup. It wasn’t so different from a chicken noodle soup, yet it was infinitely tastier. Maybe there was hope for this much-maligned recipe after all…

The humble noodle
Nikon D50

I first tried my hand at a, well, decidedly modern take on the stuff that I found in the Mayo Clinic cookbook. It had a chicken stock and soy milk base with edamame in the soup, and well…. it was weird. I didn’t like it. But then…. last winter I was just getting into making my own stock and had had wild success with using it as the base for soups – even with recipes I had panned when I had made them with commercial chicken broth (forgive me, for I knew not what I had done). So I got to thinking that maybe it was time to give chicken noodle soup another shot, and this time I was determined to give it a fair shot.

Chicken noodle soup secret weapons: the herb satchet
Nikon D50

Disillusioned by my first disaster with the stuff, I swore off recipes and struck off on my own. Amazingly, I hit pay-dirt on my first try. I had stumbled upon the First Law of Soups (anything made with a homemade stock is guaranteed to not be bland, boring, or disgusting) and the Second Law of Soups (always cook your noodles or grains in the stock).

Unfortunately, stock tends to burn a hole in my freezer. I just can’t keep the stuff on hand, I use it as soon as I make it. If I do happen to have some in there, I’m usually saving it for something specific. But tonight I found myself with quarts and quarts of it in my freezer, even above and beyond what I will need for my upcoming minestrone soup. I also just so happened to have the salvaged chicken from my last pot of stock handy, and I realized that once again, this soup’s time had come. I mean, it’s been a tough week. I could use some comfort food. Thankfully, I’ve finally found a way for this time-honored classic to actually be comforting.

Comfort meets homemade food
Nikon D50

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Jan 142008

Every year since I can remember, my family has eaten beef burgundy on Christmas Eve. The warm wine and beef flavors, served atop noodles, the meat perfectly tender… this is the food that memories are made of. Which is good, because it means that the substantial effort required to put this meal on the table is worth it. I mean, come on, this is a dish three days in the making – you know it has to be good. This recipe is like the poster child of the slow food movement.

The beef begins its long slow marinate
Nikon D50

Even though this year was the first that I’d ever enjoyed this meal on Christmas itself (it was our tradition to eat this on the Eve), this is the single dish that I associate the most with warm and cozy family dinners around the holidays. We often spent Christmas with extended family, but Christmas Eve was a smaller affair, and beef burgundy, with its warm and sensuous flavor, was the perfect dish for a more intimate setting.

Deliciousness is served
Nikon D50

Now that I’m all grown up, having married and struck out on my own, I find that I’m in a fun situation: I get to make my own traditions with Cory now. Not surprisingly, beef burgundy made the cut. We enjoyed our first Christmas as husband and wife huddled over a bowl (or two), eating the food that will tie the years of our lives together.

Every family deserves a beef burgundy of their own.

For the backpacker’s version of this recipe, scroll all the way to the bottom: it’s posted at the end of the traditional version of the recipe.

I don't want to wait another year to eat this again!
Nikon D50

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