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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Tasty on a Budget: Fun with Pasta (Beet Greens Carbonara, Penne with Parmesan Sauce)

Alright, let's be honest. I may have talked last post about my desire to get away from pasta sometimes--and not without good reason--but all a week without it did is sharpen my desire to have it again. And in any event, the cause of  Pasta Monotony lies not so much with pasta, but with that red menace, jarred tomato sauce. It can be a lifesaver of course--it's a quick easy way to make 50 cents worth of pasta and 50 cents worth of vegetables and/or meat taste pretty good, and so long as the other stuff you toss in is tasty enough and you don't do it too often, there's no reason for it not be a pantry staple. But I've found, at least for myself, that if I try to eat pasta and red sauce too often,  especially for multiple days in a row the flavor quickly becomes oppressively same-y and dull.  (Homemade red sauce is, of course, an entirely different and far more wondrous beast, but it's anything but quick and easy). Pesto, especially when it's homemade, is significantly less prone to this, but I've even got sick of it too sometimes. But these are by no means the only two things you can do with a pot of pasta, and there are multiple other fun approaches that you can take that can produce seriously exciting dinners with no less speed and hardly any more expense.
So, after cooking my last recipe for this blog, I found myself with most of a package of bacon and the greens from the beets I roasted. I hadn't cooked with beet greens before, but when I read about them I was excited to do something good with them. What's fun about beet greens (aside from the fact that they come attached  for free to the beets you're already buying)  is that they're like two vegetables at once: the leafy greens have a nice deep, earthy flavor reminiscent of collards, while the ribs to which they're attached look like thin, ruby red celery stalks--and have a texture that gives you celery-like snap with much less fibrousness, and a flavor that's not dissimilar but has deep undertones that celery can't match. If you don't have any beet greens on hand though, collards or turnip greens will do fine, along with some chopped celery, preferably from smaller, younger stalks.

At any rate, Carbonara in all forms is one of my favorite dishes. I think it has the highest deliciousness to effort ratio of any dish I've encountered--it is, if anything, easier, than adding and warming jarred sauce, and yet it has a richness, warmth, and intensity of flavor that makes it seem far fancier than it has any right to be. While peas or mushrooms are the traditional vegetables, I think that greens provide a terrifically fresh, vegetal counterpoint to the richness of the egg and bacon.

Beet Greens Carbonara
Serves 4

1 lb pasta
1 medium to large bunch beet greens, greens chopped coarsely and ribs sliced into ~1cm pieces.
1 medium red or sweet onion, diced.
3 cloves garlic, minced.
2 or 3 strips bacon, cut into small pieces.  (Or, better yet, substitute pancetta).
~1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
~1/4 cup milk or cream (opt)
1 egg
~1/8th teaspoon ground cumin
Celery seeds
Sriracha, to taste
Red wine vinegar
Freshly-ground pepper

1. Put pasta on to boil.
2. Add chopped bacon to a dry frying pan over medium-high heat, and cook until fat begins to render out of bacon. 
3. Add onions and garlic to pan and saute until the onions begin to become translucent.
4. Add greens to pan and sautee until cooked. Season with ground cumin, celery seeds, and salt. Squeeze on sriracha to taste, add a generous splash of red wine vinegar, and stir to pull browned fragments from pan. Turn off heat.
5. As soon as the pasta is ready, drain it and move it immediately back to the pot. Add the contents of the frying pan.
6. Add cheese, salt, and a generous grinding of pepper.
7. Add the milk or cream if using, break the egg directly into the pot, and stir vigourously until the the egg is cooked and has no visible large pieces. Serve immediately.

Carbonara's quick heartiness makes it a tremendously valuable dish to have in your repertoire, but there are other quite fun, slightly more elaborate pasta dishes that you can do with only a little more effort. This particular spin came to me when I was trying to make a dinner that would be both moderately fancy and good cold-weather comfort food, but would be both meatless (as I had a vegetarian friend visiting) and avoid being excessively heavy. The solution I attempted was to pair a Parmesan cream sauce with bright and acidic ( mostly) raw vegetables, rather than heavier cooked vegetables or meat, as well as some toasted slivered almonds for a bit of crunch. Hopefully you enjoy the results.

Penne with Parmesan Sauce
Serves 4-6
1 pound Penne or other cut pasta (or linguini if you prefer).
1 medium red onion, cut in quarters and sliced as thin as possible
1 medium red potato
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely shredded  (opt)
1/4 cup finely chopped curly parsley or 1/8 cup fennel greens (opt).
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds.

1 1/2 tablespoons butter 
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup reduced fat milk
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp Paprika
1/2 tbsp Mexican-style red chili powder (look for the stuff in bags, instead of jars)
Pinch of Nutmeg 
Freshly ground pepper

1. Rinse potato, and microwave or boil until cooled but still firm. Allow to cool, then slice as fine as possible.
2. Put pasta on to boil.
3.  Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat, and gradually incorporate flour, stirring until roux is light brown and there is no visible flour (~30s-1min)
4. Gradually whisk in milk, and then bring to a boil for 1-2 mins, until thick.
5. Gradually add cheese, paprika, chili powder, nutmeg, plenty of ground pepper, and salt.
6. In a serving dish, combine everything, top with parsley or fennel greens, and serve immediately

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