Friday, December 11, 2009

now that's what i'm talking about

Sometimes when I say I don't have the energy to cook what I really mean is that I don't have the energy to figure out how to make a recipe. Will I be surprised by a step that involves letting something soak or chill or simmer for two hours? Will I end up chopping vegetables into tiny dice until 8:30 pm? That's a huge part of the appeal of having an arsenal of tried-and-true favorites. Because once I've made a dish several times, I know how long it takes to make. And I can figure out little multi-tasking tricks to make it happen in the most efficient way. Think of it as Old World grandmother cooking--guided by muscle memory as much as by recipe.

So as I type up the recipes that I'll share for this project, I'm going to try to channel that Old World grandmother, and let you in on the little tricks that I've found to make a recipe come together as smoothly and quickly as possible. My ingredient list won't call for a chopped onion--instead, I'll just ask for an onion, and then I'll tell you when I chop it. That might seem silly, or overly prescriptive--and you might find your own, better tricks. But knowing that kind of detail makes a big difference in actually getting me into the kitchen. So I'll try to pass it along to you.

There are three reasons I'm starting off with the recipe below. First, I'm insanely proud of it--I made it up all on my own a while back, in a fit of farmers market inspiration. Second, in Seattle at least locally raised fennel and cauliflower are available just about year-round, so this is a dish we can enjoy pretty much anytime.

Third, it's exactly the sort of recipe that I'm looking for more of: simple ingredients, simple preparation, and crave-worthy results. You hack up some fennel and cauliflower, braise them until they're meltingly tender and mellow in flavor, and then toss them with sturdy pasta and some crumbles of sharp feta cheese. A sprinkle of zatar, a Middle Eastern spice blend featuring wild thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, ties it all together. (Really fresh, flavorful zatar is key here. I buy mine from World Spice Merchants near Pike Place Market.)

In fact, it's more than a recipe--in our house it's almost become a recipe template. You can vary the spices or the vegetables (just about anything sturdy enough to stand up to a braise would do, I think--carrots, turnips, shallots, and so on), or substitute chevre for the feta, or even add meat if you are carnivorously inclined. Just chop the vegetables while the water heats, cook the vegetables while the pasta boils, and then toss everything together at the end. Easy.

Pasta with Braised Fennel and Cauliflower

If you can find it, orange cauliflower is gorgeous in this dish.

1 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs butter
1/2 of a large onion
3 large cloves garlic
1 large bulb fennel
1 small head cauliflower
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
2 tsp zatar
6 oz feta cheese
8 oz penne or other short, stocky pasta

Put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta.

While you wait for it to boil, slice up the onion into quarter-rings. Peel the garlic and cut the cloves into thin slices. Quarter the fennel bulb and cut each piece into 1/4-inch slices. Cut or break the cauliflower into small florets.

Now heat the butter and olive oil together in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and saute for a few minutes until the onion starts to get translucent. Add the fennel and cauliflower and stir it up. Then add the salt (don't go overboard; remember that the feta cheese you'll add later is pretty salty) and zatar, and stir again so that everything is nicely mixed together. Turn down the heat a bit, cover the saucepan, and let the vegetables do their braising thing. You might want to check them once or twice as they cook just in case they need a quick stir or a smidge of water to prevent them from sticking.

When the water boils, add the pasta. While the pasta cooks, crumble up the feta cheese. Cook the pasta until it is al dente and drain. Now check the vegetables--with any luck, they should be getting all tender and silky right about the time the pasta is done. Return the pasta to the cooking pot, dump in the vegetables and cheese, and toss to combine. You can sprinkle a little extra zatar over each serving if you like.

Makes about 4 servings.

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