Tuesday, January 26, 2010

sneaky me

This recipe is another small tastes original. My husband asked me what inspired it and I replied, "Monkey."

The idea started brewing a couple of weeks ago, when Monkey ate half a log of goat cheese for her mid-morning snack. For real. I'd give her another few chunks and she'd gobble it up--just unadorned goat cheese--and ask for more. So I started thinking about what I could make that would capitalize on this new enthusiasm of hers but also be something we would all enjoy. I figured I'd combine goat cheese and pasta--something not too different from her beloved "cheesy noodles" (a.k.a. Kraft dinner), because we wouldn't want to push our luck too far, would we?

Then for the veggies. Here I was inspired by two of Monkey's favorite entertainments: The Little Engine That Could, which features "fresh spinach for [the good boys' and girls'] dinners" (but which, I have to tell you, is also a totally, totally insipid piece of literature. I mean, the little blue engine just chugs over the mountain! Where is the trying and trying and the almost failing and the trying again and finally overcoming adversity? It is not the story I thought it was, at all.) And an episode of the delightful animated series Harold and the Purple Crayon (which is narrated by, believe it or not, Sharon Stone), in which Harold is sent to his room for refusing to eat squash but turns out to think squash is quite yummy in the end. Sneaky me, I thought this all might function as peer pressure to encourage her to at least try what I came up with.

The first time I made this I even used tiny alphabet-shaped pasta, which Monkey's grandparents had sent in her Christmas package. But that first batch needed work. I'd tried to keep the method really simple by just stirring melted goat cheese into the pasta. The result was okay, but not great. I really wanted this to be smooth and creamy, almost like a risotto. I would have to actually make a white sauce.

The good news, though, was that this gave me the opportunity to add some garlic to the dish. Have I mentioned that I've been craving garlic recently?

And in truth, making a quick white sauce isn't all that burdensome. The method is just like making boxed macaroni and cheese, really (I know this sounds sacrilegious, but stick with me here) and it doesn't take much more time.

Anyway, I loved the result--I actually think it's company-worthy, a rich, creamy dish that's also pretty gorgeous on the plate. And Monkey? Well, the fad for goat cheese seems to have passed, I'm sorry to say. But try it she did. She might have even eaten two bites, though I'm sure completely by accident.

Orzo "Risotto" with Spinach, Goat Cheese, and Butternut Squash

4 Tbs butter
1 3-pound butternut squash
whole nutmeg

8 oz orzo
6 oz frozen chopped spinach*

1 Tbs butter
1 or 2 cloves garlic, to taste (I used 2 and it was pretty dang garlicky)
1/8 tsp salt
1 Tbs flour
3/4 C milk
4 oz chevre (fresh goat cheese)

Put 2 Tbs butter in each of two large baking dishes. Set them in the oven and turn it on to 400 F. Peel and seed the squash, and chunk it into one-inch pieces.

By the time you finish with that, the butter in the baking dishes should be melted. Take the dishes out of the oven and add the squash, dividing it evenly between the two dishes. Sprinkle a little salt (no more than 1/4 tsp total) over the squash, grind on some black pepper, and then grate a little nutmeg over it all. Put the baking dishes back in the oven and roast the squash, stirring once or twice, for about 35 minutes, or until very tender.

Once the squash is in the oven, put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta. When the water boils, add the orzo and cook until it is al dente--the label on the bulk bin at the store said 5 to 8 minutes, but really it took me about 10. Add the spinach to the pasta pot in the last couple of minutes of cooking*. Drain the pasta and the spinach--a fine-mesh strainer works better than a standard colander in this case.

Now, in the pan you used to cook the pasta, melt the remaining 1 Tbs butter over medium heat. Peel the garlic and press it into the pan. Add the salt, and stir the butter and garlic for a minute or two, until the garlic begins to soften and becomes fragrant. Then add the flour and stir until the butter and flour form a paste. Add the milk, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring to incorporate each addition. Now add the goat cheese and stir until you have a smooth sauce. Then add the pasta and spinach back to the pan, and stir to combine and heat through.

Right about now, your squash should be done, so remove it from the oven. To serve, place a big spoonful of the orzo on each plate and top with a generous heap of squash.

*I used frozen chopped spinach because this was what I had on hand. There are a couple of ways to do this, I think. Instead of adding frozen spinach to the pasta water, you could defrost it separately, squeeze out the water, and then add it to the cheese sauce when you add the cooked orzo. Or, you could use fresh greens--I think that would make for an even better and prettier finished dish, actually. If you use baby spinach or something similarly delicate, I think you could again add it to the cheese sauce along with the orzo. If you use something more substantial, like grownup spinach or chard, I would recommend chopping the greens and adding them to the pasta water in the last few minutes of cooking. The key, in any case, is to make sure you are not adding a lot of extra water to the cheese sauce.

Makes 4-5 servings

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