Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dinner for One: Pasta with Béchamel Sauce and Spring Vegetables (or Baked Pasta Primavera)

Béchamel sauce sounds much classier than country gravy. Béchamel is just like Grandma's milk (or country) gravy. Instead of using sausage fat or shortening, I am using butter as my fat.

I have a running list of dishes and recipes that I feel I should try at least once. Béchamel sauce was on that list. I do not know why it took me so long to try making the sauce; I was slightly intimidated, no logical reason why. I decided to try making béchamel while Z. was gone. One of the worst feelings in the world is when I make something I am super excited about and it has luke-warm reviews. I have hyped up the possibilities of béchamel to Z. for ages now, so if he did not like the dish, I would probably cry.

I did it! I made béchamel sauce!!!

I wanted to share a few of the things I learned while making béchamel sauce. Some recipes, like Anne Burrell's, said you could use the sauce after bringing it to a boil. Others, like Mario Batali's recipe, said to simmer the sauce for ten minutes. I made the sauce first then cooked my vegetables so I could the sauce my full attention. I am not very good at timing in cooking. Z., on the other hand, can have all the components of a meal all ready at the same time.

Also, I baked my pasta. I really wanted a nice brown top. This sauce would be wonderful right out of the pot. I thought since I was rationing the cheese, the best use of the cheese would be to sprinkle it on top and bake until golden and bubbly. This is a thick béchamel sauce, please feel free to add more milk to adjust to your taste. Enjoy!

  • Add grilled or sauteed chicken when mixing pasta, vegetables, and sauce.
  • Instead of sauteing the onion and zucchini, cut onion into slices and zucchini into horizontal slices, brush with canola oil, and grill. Then, dice and add to pasta and béchamel mixture. 
  • Add shredded cheese to béchamel sauce and use macaroni pasta for a grown-up version of macaroni and cheese.
  • Adding grated nutmeg to béchamel sauce is very traditional.

Pasta with Béchamel Sauce and Spring Vegetables, serves 2-3

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 cups penne pasta or 2 1/2 servings of pasta of choice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 small yellow or white onion, diced finely
1 small zucchini, diced
approximately 3 cups of baby spinach, washed and dried
4 cloves garlic, more or less according to taste, minced finely
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
red chili flakes, optional
  1.  To make the béchamel sauce, begin by melting butter in a large sauce pan. Add flour and mix with butter. Stir frequently. Cook until mixture is the color of sand, depending on temperature of pan, may take 4-10 minutes.
  2. Add milk and stir until incorporated. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once sauce has reached a boil, turn heat down and simmer gently. Season with salt and black pepper. Do not forget to stir occasionally while preparing rest of ingredients!
  3. Meanwhile, preheat broiler in oven and begin cooking pasta. Cook pasta until al dente, make sure the pasta still has a little bite to it. Prepare a baking dish by greasing or spraying with non-stick cooking spray.
  4. Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion and season with salt. Stir occasionally and cook until onion is translucent. Add garlic, season with salt again, and cook until garlic is almost cooked, about 3 minutes.
  5. Add zucchini and cook about 2 minutes before adding spinach. Be careful not to overcook the zucchini. Cook until spinach has wilted.
  6. When pasta is done cooking, drain thoroughly. In a large bowl, combine pasta, vegetables, and most of the béchamel sauce, reserving enough to spoon over the top of the pasta mixture. I reserved about 1/4 to 1/3 of the sauce for this purpose. Season mixture with kosher salt, black pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes if desired. Spoon mixture into prepared baking dish. Top the pasta with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle cheese evenly over the top.
  7. Place in preheated oven, about 10 inches under the broiler and cook until the top is brown, about 5 minutes. Serve. Makes great leftovers!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dinner for One: Pasta with Anchovies and White Beans

Despite knowing a fair amount about food and ingredients, I am no foodie. I am not an adventurous eater by any stretch of the imagination; there are many, many things I have yet to taste. Until recently, besides hiding in Worcestershire sauce and Caesar dressing, I have not knowingly eaten anchovies. Trader Joe's has a nice selection of store-brand canned fish and seafood products at what I would consider reasonable prices. After many months pondering the idea of cooking my own meal with anchovies, I bit the bullet and bought a tin of anchovies and a tin of sardines that are still in my cupboard. And, I do mean I have thought about this for months. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of money eating out, I spend, for some what would be an inordinate amount of time, thinking about dishes and recipes I would like to make. I vicariously experience food by daydreaming about it. We all have strange habits; I am just publicly admitting to one of mine.

For my first home-cooked meal with anchovies, I wanted to make a dish that would feature the little fishies. A pasta dish seemed like a good fit. I do not have any explanation why, my guess is that it has something to do with watching hundreds of Rachael Ray's cooking shows over the years where she makes some sort of sauce with a few anchovy filets. My dish isn't that pretty, a little parsley would have spruced it up nicely. When I saw my meal on my plate, I was surprised. I promise I do not go out of my way to make beige or brown food. It just happens without me trying or thinking about it.
White Bean Dip
I have to admit, this experiment was only okay. I should have added a splash of lemon juice or a handful of chopped parsley. The sauce needs a fresh component. I still have the other half of the anchovies stored in the fridge so I can try another recipe. I only used half the can of beans in the pasta and made a white bean dip with the other half. The white bean dip was pleasant but I do not plan on making it again. I whizzed the beans in my Kitchen Ninja with some olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, like hummus. I just think white beans are too boring to be the star of a dish, unless it is white bean soup.

Pasta with Anchovies and White Beans, serves 2
olive oil
1 1/2 cups penne (or two servings of pasta of your choice)
4-5 anchovy filets
4 cloves garlic, minced finely
1/2 can white beans, rinsed and drained
red pepper flakes, to taste
salt and pepper
splash of lemon or some chopped parsley, optional
  1. Prepare pasta according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile heat a 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet with sides high enough you will be able to toss the pasta in. Use some of the oil from the anchovies.
  3. Put anchovy filets in warm olive oil. Break up gently with a wooden spoon. They will break down.
  4. Add garlic. Season with salt and black pepper. Saute until cooked, stirring occasionally, about 3-4 minutes.
  5. Add white beans and cook until just heated through, about 1-2 minutes.
  6. Before draining pasta keep 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set aside. Drain pasta and add to garlic/anchovy mixture. Mix thoroughly to coat pasta with mixture. Add a splash of pasta cooking water if needed.  If you have lemon juice or parsley, add now. Adjust salt and garnish with red pepper flakes and serve. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dinner for One: Green Bean Stir Fry

When it comes to produce, I only buy what is on sale. I would love to say I do buy what is on sale because it is probably what is in season and at its freshest and tastiest. The reality is, I am just cheap. Buying produce only when it is on sale is one easy way to save money. Here is a chart to see what may be in season, if you are interested. So, when spring finally comes around, I become very happy. Not only is there a possibility that there won't be rain for a day, there is the possibility of many great produce deals due to the change in season. After the drab and dreary colors of the winter produce, spring is so colorful and vibrant.

The last few months I have been breaking one of my cardinal rules of frugal grocery shopping: I haven't been wandering around the nearby grocery store on a weekly basis, I have only been looking at the weekly ad which can be found online. There have been some weeks where I don't even walk into a Safeway. I did manage to drag my feet into the Safeway a few days ago to pick up my go-to bag of carrots. I drifted through the produce to see if there was anything I missed when my eyes fell upon a deal that was not in any of the ads: green beans for $0.99 a pound. Not only are green beans delicious, Z. and I have been keeping an eye out for a green bean sale. We started canning and pickling almost two months ago (I will be sharing our adventures soon!) and knew we wanted to stock our pantry with pickled green beans. Here was our chance! I was able to pick up just enough beans for a meal but there was not enough for pickling. I got a rain check instead. That's fine, too. Just remember to use your rain checks. I always clip mine to the fridge where I can see it every time I open the refrigerator door.

Well, here is the recipe for the meal I made with these green beans. I served my stir fry over bulgur wheat because that's what I was craving. I also wonder how other people stir fry their vegetables. I am particular about not cooking the garlic and ginger first. It's just a quirk I have. As always, this is just an idea, do what you like! This is a Dinner for One post but really this was dinner for two: myself and my lunch. Enjoy!

Green Bean Stir Fry

1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 pound fresh green beans, approximately, washed and cut into bite-sized pieces
2-3 carrots, peeled and chopped
ginger, about 1 inch piece grated or minced finely
3 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar of your choice (rice vinegar, white vinegar, and cider vinegar work the best)
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
sesame seed oil, toasted sesame seeds, and red pepper flakes to garnish
  1. The vegetables cook very quickly so I suggest preparing the sauce first. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar in a small cup or small bowl. Taste to adjust to your liking. I usually add more vinegar. Set aside.
  2. Heat oil in a skillet or wok over medium heat. When hot, add carrots, stirring occasionally, cook about 2 minutes. 
  3. Add garlic and ginger, stirring occasionally, cook 1-2 minutes.
  4. Add green beans to carrot mixture. Cook until hot but still crispy, about 2-3 minutes.
  5. Pour sauce mixture into pan. Stir vegetables to coat. Let boil. If there is too much sauce, let boil a minute to reduce sauce. Serve immediately over rice or a grain of your choice. Garnish with a drizzle of sesame seed oil, toasted sesame seeds, or red pepper flakes, if you like. Enjoy!
P.S. If you can, get your soy sauce and other ingredients from an Asian market. The soy sauce you can get there is so much better than what you can find at the regular grocery store. Our soy sauce is dark and thick and incredibly flavorful compared to the other brands we tried.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sincronizada Pacific Northwest-Style

My understanding of authentic Latin food is very limited but I have learned that one of the features that sets a sincronizada apart from a quesadilla is that a sincronizada uses two tortillas to sandwich tasty fillings. A quesadilla, on the other hand, features a tortilla folded in half. So, I decided to call my snack sincronizada.

I drew inspiration from the cheese sincronizadas that have seemed to become a staple the last couple of weeks thanks in part to a recent sale on shredded cheese to create a variation of one of life's simple joys: pear or apple slices topped with a piece of sharp cheddar. The creation of my Sincronizada Pacific Northwest-Style began just like many dinners, I sprinkled some cheddar cheese on a corn tortilla while a small skillet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray heated up over medium. Then, the process took a pleasant turn. I placed pear slices, about one-fourth of a pear, in a single layer over the cheese, sprinkled a tiny bit more cheese over the pears, and seasoned with freshly ground pepper and kosher salt. The salt and pepper really made the pear sincronizada special. Lastly, I topped the pears with a second tortilla, placing the delicious package in the warm pan. I toasted each side until the tortilla was slightly golden, a few minutes each side, very carefully flipping the sincronizada over. Enjoy!