Roasted Butternut Squash Smørrebrød with Spicy Harissa Mayo and Pepitas

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Remember that very traditional new potato smørrebrød I shared with you recently?  This is a somewhat unconventional take on that concept.  The same dense rye bread, butter and greens for a base, but this time topped with buttery roasted squash half-moons, spicy harissa mayonnaise, cilantro and pepitas.  A complete break from tradition, but delicious in its own right.

Roasted Butternut Squash Smørrebrød with Spicy Harissa Mayo and Pepitas

Makes 4 small sandwiches (which serves about two people)

 4 thin slices dense rye bread, a little over 1/4 inch thick

Butter, preferably salted

A handful or two of baby arugula leaves

Roasted Butternut Squash Half-Moonsrecipe below

Spicy Harissa Mayonnaise, recipe below

a handful of cilantro leaves (removed from their stems but left whole)

1/4 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), toasted in a dry skillet

Butter each slice of bread.  Place a layer of baby arugula leaves on top.  Arrange squash slices artfully over the arugula.  Spoon Spicy Harissa Mayo over the squash.  Scatter cilantro leaves and roasted pepitas on top.  Serve.

Roasted Butternut Squash Half-Moons

Adapted from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen

Depending on the size of your squash, makes enough for approximately 4 sandwiches.  Plan on about 6 slices of squash per sandwich.

1 Medium-sized butternut squash

2 tablespoons butter

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Cut the neck portion of the squash from the rounded bottom (ideally just above where the seeds start).  Peel the neck portion of the squash using a y-shaped vegetable peeler.  You can surely peel and use the bottom of the squash as well, cutting it in half and removing the seeds from the cavity with a spoon before proceeding with the recipe.  I save the unpeeled bottom of the squash for my backyard chickens.  They think it is about the best treat ever.
  3. Carefully cut the peeled squash in half lengthwise, and then into 1/4 inch thick half-moon shapes.
  4. Melt butter in a large bowl.  Place squash slices in the bowl with the butter and toss until coated.
  5. Lay squash slices in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the squash slices are soft and slightly caramelized on the bottom.  Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature.

Squash can be prepared up to three days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.  The squash is best if it is not cold from the fridge.  Take it out 30 minutes or so before assembling sandwiches to warm slightly before using.

Spicy Harissa Mayonnaise

Makes approximately 1/4 cup

1/4 cup prepared mayonnaise

1 tablespoon prepared harissa (I use the one from Trader Joe’s)

Combine mayonnaise and harissa in a small bowl.  Add more harissa to taste.  Can be prepared up to two days in advance.

Roasted Pear Compote with Cardamom, Vanilla and Fresh Ginger

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Roasted Pear Compote with Cardamom, Vanilla and Fresh Ginger on crispbread spread with cream cheese.  An excellent fika treat!

It’s time we had a little chat about cardamom.  Citrusy, spicy, floral….it is, shall we say, a very complex and exotic spice.  Although native to India, cardamom has somehow managed to find its way into many traditional recipes for Scandinavian baked goods.  The Nordic countries are famous for their cardamom buns, cakes and cookies.  How did this far-flung spice find its way from India to Scandinavia?  Some claim that the Vikings brought it north with them after encountering it on their travels to the Byzantine Empire (now Turkey) or possibly Constantinople (now Istanbul).  Others say it was first brought to mainland Europe when the Moors established a presence on the Iberian peninsula, and it made its way to Scandinavia from there.  Whatever the circumstances, cardamom is the darling spice of the Nordic baking world.

It is not, however, beloved by all.  I once bought my daughter a large cardamom-laced sugar cookie from a Scandinavian bakery.  She eagerly took a big bite, unaware of the cardamom lurking inside, and spit it out, disgusted.  “Mom, why does my cookie taste like soap!?”  Oh, how my Swedish, Norwegian and Danish ancestors must have rolled in their graves upon hearing this!  Clearly I had not done as good of a job raising her as I thought I had.  Not enough exposure to cardamom and now the taste was unpleasant, foreign and apparently soapy to her.  We joke that it might make a good title for her memoir someday:  Why Does My Cookie Taste Like Soap?  Discovering my Nordic Heritage the Hard Way (coming to a book store near you in 20 years or so).  As I said, not beloved by all.

To be honest, I didn’t like cardamom as a kid either.  I now enjoy it in small doses ( a little goes a LONG way), and I feel like some of the recipes I encounter are a bit heavy handed with this potent spice.  If you are new to cardamom or are trying to convince your children of its deliciousness, I would suggest a light touch at first…a quarter or half teaspoon of it here or there.  I also recommend buying the pods and grinding the seeds inside yourself rather than purchasing ground cardamom.  You will be rewarded with a much truer flavor.

This pear compote is delicately laced with whole cardamom seeds, and I absolutely love it.  It makes a delicious topping for toast, crispbread, porridge and granola served with filmjölk, yogurt or milk of your choice.  Or you can just eat it with a spoon!  According to Live Lagom:  Balanced Living the Swedish Way by Anna Brones, compotes are a very common way to serve fruit in Sweden.  This one is my take on a pear compote I made in cooking school some years back.   In class we used it as a filling for a gingerbread cobbler, which is something to consider.  The combination of pears and gingerbread is utterly magical.

Roasted Pear Compote with Cardamom, Vanilla and Fresh Ginger

 Makes approximately 12 ounces

 5-6 small to medium-sized Bartlett pears, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes

2 tablespoons honey

Seeds from 2 crushed cardamom pods, pods discarded

4-5 thin slices of fresh ginger (no need to peel)

a pinch course salt

½ vanilla bean

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine all ingredients except vanilla bean and lemon juice in an 8 or 9 inch square baking dish.
  3. With a small sharp knife, split vanilla bean down one side of the pod.Open up the pod and lay it flat on your cutting board. Using the back of your knife, remove the black seeds from the interior of the pod by scraping from one end of the open pod to the other.  Place seeds and empty pod in the baking dish along with the other ingredients.
  4. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring half way through, or until pears have softened considerably.
  5. Remove the pan from the oven.  Using a spoon, remove and discard the vanilla bean pod and ginger slices.  Mash pears with a potato masher or the back of a fork until they are create a chunky, rustic mash.  Add lemon juice.  Taste the mixture and season with additional lemon juice, salt or honey to taste.  Once the compote has cooled, transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

 

New Potato Smørrebrød with Garlic Aïoli and Crispy Shallots

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A confession….I am not from Sweden, Denmark or Norway.  I am an American with Scandinavian roots.  My grandmother on my Dad’s side was Swedish, my grandmother on my Mom’s side was Norwegian and Danish, and my grandfather was Norwegian.  Growing up here in the United States in the 1970’s and 80’s, my family ate a very typical American diet.  The only time that we really prepared foods that reflected our Scandinavian heritage was during the holidays.  Beginning with lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread) at Thanksgiving and continuing on through Christmas with rommegröt (Norwegian sour cream pudding), pickled herring, stirred lingonberries, Swedish meatballs and pancakes (just to name a few), we managed to pack a lot of Nordic recipes into a short 6 week time frame.  But the rest of the year…not so much.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve wondered about this holiday-centric approach to celebrating one’s ancestry in the kitchen, which I’m sure is not unique to my family.  I began to be curious about what Scandinavians ate on an every day basis, not just at Christmas.  I’ve done a lot of reading, cooking and baking on the subject and I’m hoping to share a bit of what I’ve learned here on the blog.  Know that what I share here in terms of recipes is simply my take on what I’ve read and learned about Nordic cuisine over the last few years and through my experience of growing up in a family with Scandinavian heritage.  I don’t claim to be an expert (I’ve never even travelled to Scandinavia!), but I will share with you the unique ways in which I am inspired by Nordic cuisine in my own kitchen.  And I’m sure I’ll share a family recipe or two along the way!

In my last post, we covered the basics of smørrebrød.  Let’s get down to business with this classic example of the Nordic open face sandwich.  My research suggests that Scandinavians are fond of putting cold potatoes on their sandwiches.  This might sound odd but it is actually quite delicious and a fabulous use for leftover boiled potatoes from last night’s dinner.  Thinly sliced potatoes with a garlicky mayo sauce and crispy shallots that taste like little baby onion rings.  What’s not to love?

Smørrebrød with New Potatoes, Aïoli and Crispy Shallots

Adapted from The Scandi Kitchen by Brontë Aurell and Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann

Serves 2

 4 thin slices dense rye bread, a little over 1/4 inch thick

Butter, preferably salted

A handful or two of baby arugula leaves

4-5 new potatoes

Quick Aïoli, recipe below

Crispy shallots, recipe below

1 Tablespoon chopped chives or dill, and/or microgreens

Salt and freshly ground pepper

  1.  Place new potatoes in cold water.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Smaller potatoes will obviously cook more quickly than larger potatoes.  Check doneness by piercing a potato or two with the tip of a sharp knife.  It should slide in and out easily without much resistance.  Drain potatoes and rinse with cold water.  Set aside to cool.  Potatoes can be prepared up to three days in advance.  Store in the refrigerator.
  2. Butter each slice of bread.  Place a layer of baby arugula leaves on top.  Slice new potatoes into thin (1/4 inch thick) slices and arrange artfully over the arugula.  Salt and pepper the potato slices to taste.  Drizzle aïoli over potatoes (I like to place the sauce in the center between the two rows of potato slices) and scatter crispy shallots and herbs and/or microgreens on top.  Serve.

 

Quick Aïoli

Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

Makes 1/4 cup

1 small garlic clove

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup prepared mayonnaise

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Mince garlic clove and let sit in lemon juice for 10 minutes or so to mellow out the raw garlic flavor.  Add mayonnaise and olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Aïoli can be made up three days in advance.  Store in the refrigerator.

 

Crispy Fried Shallots

Adapted from The Scandi Kitchen by Brontë Aurell

Makes approximately 1 cup of shallots

3 medium-size shallots, sliced into thin rings, rings separated from one another

1/4 cup all purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon fine salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup canola, peanut or vegetable oil for frying

Course sea salt for sprinkling

  1.  Combine flour, salt and a few grinds of pepper in a large ziploc bag.  Add shallots, seal and toss around until shallots are coated with flour mixture.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large saucepan until it reaches 280 degrees.  It’s worth using a thermometer here if you have one.  If the oil is too hot, the shallots will burn and if it is too cool they will be soggy.
  3. Remove half of the shallots from the bag, shaking off any excess flour.  Place in pan and fry until golden brown and crispy.  This may take as little as two minutes or as long as five.  Keep your eye on them and look for the visual cues.  Remove from oil using a slotted spoon.  Place on paper towels and allow to drain.  Sprinkle with sea salt and allow them to cool slightly and crisp up.  Repeat with the other half of the shallots.

Shallots can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for 5-7 days.  Mine usually stay pretty crisp, but you could warm them in a 200 degree oven to crisp them up if necessary.

The Basics of Smørrebrød

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Roasted Butternut Squash Smørrebrød with Goat Cheese, Pecans and Maple Cayenne Drizzle

“The fastest way to understand the Nordic region’s food culture is to eat an open sandwich topped with butter and hard cheese.”

-Magnus Nilsson, The Nordic Cookbook

The Nordic region’s food culture is largely based on bread.  According to The Nordic Cookbook, before potatoes arrived on the Scandinavian mainland in the early 1800’s, most people ate one to two pounds of bread a day!  It’s no wonder that the open sandwich (smørrebrød in Danish, smørbrød in Norwegian and smörgås in Swedish) became a staple of Nordic cuisine.  The origins of the Nordic open sandwich can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages.  At that time it would have been a rather simple affair….probably some kind of fat (butter or animal fat) spread on a dense rye bread with leftover meat or vegetables piled on top.  As fresh ingredients became more available, the open sandwich evolved into something more refined and elegant, particularly in Denmark where smørrebrød is now practically an art form.  There are entire restaurants devoted to the open sandwich in Denmark, and it is even possible to attain the a professional qualification known as, “Open Sandwich Master”.  But not all open sandwiches are fussy restaurant affairs.  Generally speaking, Nordic cuisine has an elegant simplicity to it, and a sandwich made at home might be as basic as a buttered slice of rye bread and a few slices of cheese or last night’s leftovers arranged on top.

Trine Hahnemann outlines a few rules for constructing smørrebrød in her book, Open Sandwiches.  I have included some of them here along with a few of my own to help you put together an open sandwich you can be proud of:

  1.  Barring a few exceptions, Nordic open sandwiches are served on dense rye bread which has been sliced quite thin.  I like my slices just a little over 1/4 inch thick.
  2. If you are using a dense rye, the bread is simply sliced, not toasted.  Sometimes I will do a light toast on mine just to freshen up the bread slightly without causing the exterior to get crispy.
  3. The bread is usually buttered quite liberally with salted butter.  If you don’t usually stock salted butter, you can use unsalted butter and sprinkle a little kosher salt on it after you spread it on the bread.
  4. There is typically one main topping and a combinations of condiments.  A well-designed smørrebrød has a variety of flavors and textures that come together to create a sandwich that is more delicious than the individual components might suggest.
  5. Smørrebrød doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be pleasing to the eye.  That’s part of the fun of the open face sandwich…with no top to disguise what’s inside there is much opportunity for creating something that is as beautiful as it is delicious.
  6. Season as you layer.  If your main ingredient is sliced cold potatoes or hard-boiled egg slices, you are going to want to season that particular layer with salt and pepper before adding the remaining condiments.
  7. Think about your layering, both in terms of visual presentation and what makes sense in terms of the temperature and shape of the main ingredient.  If your topping is warm roast pork, for example, you aren’t going to want to put tender arugula leaves underneath it.  That’s a recipe for soggy greens.  Layer in a way that lets each ingredient shine.
  8. If you really want to get serious about aesthetics, consider placing any sauces that you are using into a squeeze bottle, plastic piping bag or ziploc bag (with a corner of the bag cut off).  This allows you to squeeze the sauce onto the sandwich exactly where you want it. It can be difficult to artfully arrange sauces with just a spoon.
  9. Unless it really doesn’t seem appropriate, always add a shower of something small and green on the very top for garnish.  Chopped fresh herbs, microgreens, sprouts, or watercress are all good choices.
  10.  If you’ve created a lovely smørrebrød piled high with delicious ingredients, don’t try and pick the whole thing up and take a bite.  These sandwiches are usually a knife and fork affair.

Picasso once said, “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”  Make a classic smørrebrød or two (recipes to follow), but also get into the kitchen and play!  Let your bread be your canvas and get creative.  Anything goes when it comes to designing your own open face sandwiches.

 

Start With the Stock

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“When we eat from a wide open space, from a place of permission and empowerment, we make choices based on how foods taste to us, how we enjoy them and, most importantly, how they make us feel.  This requires us to be present and pay attention while we eat, a difficult task in our modern, fast-paced world.  It may also require that we get into the kitchen and learn some basic cooking techniques so that we can explore and play with food in our own space and on our own terms.”

Eating in a Wide Open Space

The nature of cooking has changed dramatically since the advent of the food blog and the internet in general.  There are, quite literally, millions of recipes at your fingertips for absolutely anything you might want to make.  I just typed “Roast Chicken Recipe” into my Google Search and it said there were 105,000,000 results.  Talk about overwhelming!  Between the sheer volume of what’s available out there and the pressure to produce Instagram worthy meals every time we we are in the kitchen, it’s enough to send anyone searching for the nearest takeout menu or frozen meal.

But before you toss away your pots and wooden spoons, consider this:  Perhaps the answer to complexity is simplicity.  Not in the sense that we give up cooking altogether, but instead that we get back to the very basics of things.

Perhaps its time to put the focus back on cooking techniques themselves rather than individual recipes.  I went to cooking school sometime ago, and even though I have a culinary education, I still find myself scouring the internet for recipes for tonight’s dinner.  What I really want from my time in the kitchen is the freedom to play, to be creative, to get in touch with what what foods taste good, what nourishes my body and what delights my senses.  Always a dutiful recipe follower, it is an ongoing challenge for me to step outside of my comfort zone of knowing that something is going to turn out if I follow someone else’s instructions and actually let myself play and experiment.

But how to do this?  Maybe it’s simply a matter of taking myself back to cooking school (home study version this time) and reacquainting myself with the skills, recipes and techniques that are the home cook’s building blocks, his or her artist’s tools.  Homemade chicken stock is where I’ve chosen to begin.  Stock is a flavorful liquid base that is the starting point for many soups, stews and braises.  It the very heart and foundation of the kitchen, the most fundamental of building blocks and yet it is something we don’t give much thought to.  While most people these days buy stock or broth in boxes at the grocery store, the process of making your own at home is a restorative ritual for slowing down and intentionally engaging in something that takes time to bring forth its full potential.  The best part?  You will be rewarded for your efforts with a golden, rich elixir that will serve as a base for some soul warming foods as we begin the transition from summer to fall.

Equipment You Will Need:

A stockpot or large Dutch oven (7 quarts or more)

Chef’s Knife

Cutting Board

Large Spoon

Tongs

Mesh Spider or Large Slotted Spoon

Fine Mesh Strainer

Large Bowl

Basic Chicken Stock

There are many recipes for making homemade chicken stock. This is mine.  Some recipes have you use chicken parts or chop the chicken into pieces before adding it to the stock.  I like to leave the chicken whole as it streamlines the process, and I don’t have to go through the messy business of chopping up a raw whole chicken. My directions have you remove the chicken breast meat after an hour.  This is optional but recommended as you will then have breast meat to potentially add to a soup or use in a chicken salad for lunch.  After the meat has simmered for 3 hours or so, it has given all of itself to the broth and is pretty well spent.  You will yield anywhere from 8-12 cups of stock from this recipe.

1 whole chicken, approximately 4 pounds, preferably organic

1 large onion, roughly chopped

2-3 medium sized carrots, roughly chopped

2 celery stalks, roughly chopped

3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme

3-4 sprigs of fresh Italian parsley

2 dried bay leaves

10-12 whole peppercorns

2-3 teaspoons course salt

1.  Place the whole chicken in the stockpot and cover with cold water. Make sure you have enough water to cover the chicken by 2 or 3 inches.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently.  As the stock begins to come to a boil, you will notice impurities rising to the surface.  Skim them away with a spoon.  Continue skimming until the impurities no longer appear.  This may take 20 minutes or so.

2.  Add remaining ingredients to the stockpot.

3.  Allow stock to simmer gently for 1 hour.  Remove chicken from the pot and, using tongs, carefully remove the chicken breast meat from the carcass and set aside.  Return chicken to pot.  Let stock continue to simmer, uncovered, for at least 2-3 more hours, adding water as needed keep chicken and vegetables submerged.  Refrigerate reserved chicken breast meat after it has cooled slightly.  Use within 3 days.

4.  Remove any large bones or spent vegetables from the pot using tongs or a mesh spider.  Set the fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and pour the stock into the strainer, removing any solids that remain.

5.  Cool stock on the counter for an hour and then cover and transfer to the refrigerator to finish cooling.   When you are ready to use or freeze the stock, use a large metal spoon to skim any solidified fat from the top before proceeding.

Use and Storage:

You will notice, if you let your stock simmer for a good, long while, that it has a gelatinous quality to it once it is cold.  This is a glorious thing and exactly what you want.  Unlike commercially prepared stocks and broths which are a thin liquid at any temperature, homemade stock is rich in collagen to the point that it gelatinizes when cold.  Once you heat it up again it will loosen and take on a luxurious, rich quality that will be incomparable to what you might buy at the store.

Refrigerated chicken stock should be used or frozen within 3 days.  To freeze, ladle 2 cup portions into freezer bags, remove any air from the bag and seal.  Lay bags flat inside of a pan with sides (to prevent any potentially leaky bags from getting stock all over your freezer before it is completely frozen).  Once they are completely frozen, remove bags from pan and store in the freezer until ready to use.  Frozen stock should be used within 3 months.

 

Eating in a Wide Open Space

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Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.

-Rumi

The picture above is of a chocolate croissant from Le Quartier bakery here in Omaha.  It is one of my favorite things in the whole world.  Buttery, flaky layers of laminated dough encasing batons of dark chocolate.  With a cup of creamy coffee this makes for one amazing breakfast.  I don’t eat these very often, maybe once a month or so.  But when I do it will be with my full presence and appreciation.  Not an ounce of guilt in sight.

I have learned over the years, particularly through my relationship with food, that my soul prefers the wide open spaces.  Once I start placing restrictions and limitations on what I can and can’t eat, my soul forcefully pushes back.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this in your own life.  As soon as you say, “I’m not eating any more cookies”, all you can think about is cookies.  And the next thing you know you just ate half a box of stale Oreos from the back of the kitchen cupboard, and you don’t even really like Oreos.

Staying in this wide open space has become even more difficult in recent years as it seems everyone is seeking a label for the way they eat:  Paleo, Keto, Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free.  There is always someone somewhere proclaiming that their way of eating is the best way, and they’ve got the science to prove it.  Never before have we as a culture felt so pressured to choose a particular restrictive diet to the exclusion of everything else.  I think there are many reasons for this:  an overwhelming amount of conflicting information about what we should and shouldn’t eat, a lack of a unifying cultural diet that has been passed down from generation to generation (think of the enduring legacy of the French or Italian diet, for example), a lack of fundamental cooking skills, and the desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves and to find an outward identity of sorts through what we eat.

But here is a radical notion:  What if, instead of giving our power away to the “experts” out there trying to tell us what is best, we trusted our own experience with food and let ourselves be intuitively led to the best choices for us?  In his insightful book, No Recipe, Edward Espe Brown says:

“When it comes to eating, we frequently have things backward.  We put a high value on obedience, while putting little value on permission and empowerment….The implicit assumption we often make is that we could never figure out anything for ourselves, so we better do what those who really know tell us.  Although that is sometimes called eating wisely, how wise is it to abandon your capacity to find out?  Do they know you as you know you?  How could they possibly have a formula that matches your uniqueness, your capacity to taste and experience, to explore and play, to enjoy and savor?”

When we eat from a wide open space, from a place of permission and empowerment, we make choices based on how foods taste to us, how we enjoy them and, most importantly, how they make us feel.  This requires us to be present and pay attention while we eat, a difficult task in our modern, fast-paced world.  It may also require that we get into the kitchen and learn some basic cooking techniques so that we can explore and play with food in our own space and on our own terms.  It may very well be that, upon your own experimentation, you find that you feel better when you eat meat, or when you eat a lot of vegetables, or that bread doesn’t agree with you.  The subtle nuances of YOUR diet can be unique, discovered through your own senses, through taste and experience, rather than through a blind adherence to an eating plan that is outside of yourself.  How we eat is yet another facet of our authenticity, an aspect of our lives in which we must align our inner knowing and experience to our outward actions.

We can reframe the way we think about food and eating so that it becomes, first and foremost, an intuitive and intimate act of self-care.  It just takes a little curiosity and a willingness to slow down and pay attention to what you enjoy and how you feel.  We all deserve to be nourished and experience the pleasure of food on our own terms.  Trust that you know more than you think you do.  Give yourself permission to eat in a wide open space.  I will see you there…I’ll be the one eating the chocolate croissant.

Homemade Pasta or Work That Is Real

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The work of the world is common as mud.  Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.  Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used.  The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.  

To Be Of Use, Marge Piercy

There is absolutely no practical reason to make your own pasta from scratch.  There are plenty of fine dried pastas available to you on the grocery store shelves and even fresh pasta in the refrigerator aisle if you are so inclined.  And yet, sometimes it is nice to do work that is real, to make something with our hands, purely for the pleasure of creating it ourselves. Or so I told my daughters as we set out to make a batch of homemade pasta. The dough itself was a surprisingly simple affair:  flour, eggs and a tiny bit of water whirled around briefly in the food processor until it forms a rough ball.  After a brief knead, the dough rested on the kitchen counter while the girls and I went to the basement and found the pasta maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer (it was still in the box…a gift given to me probably 10 years ago but never used).  We divided the dough into five equal pieces and began feeding each piece through the pasta roller, again and again, adjusting the thickness of the roller to allow the pasta to gradually become thinner and thinner.  Very quickly, a half-inch thick piece of dough became a long, smooth sheet of pasta.  The girls began to argue over whose turn it was to feed the dough through the roller and whose turn it was to catch it as it came through the other side.  “This is so satisfying,” they said as they let the cool, thin pasta sheets drape over the backs of their hands.  How often do we forget to simply notice the way something feels on our skin, the pleasing sensation of something touched and appreciated?

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The girls had been to a restaurant recently that served pasta in coin shapes, tossed in fresh basil pesto.  So we cut our pasta sheets into circles using a biscuit cutter, stacked them in parchment paper and stored them in the refrigerator until we were ready to cook them.  Meanwhile, we got to work on the pesto itself.  Basil from the garden, toasted pine nuts, toasted garlic, olive oil and parmesan came together quickly in the food processor to create this high summer treat.  We boiled a large pot of salted water and slipped our pasta coins in as quickly as our three pairs of hands could peel them carefully from the parchment paper.  After 3 minutes, we removed the coins from the boiling water and tossed them with the pesto.  The girls opted for just pasta and sauce while I added fresh tomatoes and lightly dressed arugula.  We sat outside on the porch and enjoyed the summer evening and this simple meal that we had literally made with our own hands.

Homemade Pasta and Basil Pesto

Serves 3

adapted slightly from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen

Pasta

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour

3 eggs, beaten

Water

1.  Place flour in bowl of food processor and pulse a few times to fluff.  Add eggs and process until dough comes into a ball, about 30 seconds.  Small amounts of water (1 teaspoon at a time) or additional flour (1 tablespoon at a time) can be added if the dough is either too dry and doesn’t want to form a ball or too wet and is sticking to the sides of the bowl.

2.  Remove dough and place on clean counter.  Knead until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 15 minutes or up to 2 hours.

3.  Cut dough into 5 equal-sized pieces.  Following manufacturer’s instructions for your pasta machine, roll dough into sheets.  Place dough onto parchment-lined sheet pans.

4.  Transfer the parchment and dough to a countertop or other work surface.  Using a biscuit cutter approximately 2 inches in size, cut pasta sheets into coins.  Transfer coins back to parchment, being careful not to overlap the pasta.  Stack parchment with pasta onto a sheet pan.  Cover pan loosely with plastic wrap and chill while you make the pesto.

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried

1/4 cup pine nuts

3 garlic cloves, unpeeled

7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (preferably grated with a rasp grater or microplane)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1.  Heat a small skillet over medium heat.  Add pine nuts and toast until lightly browned, shaking pan occasionally to redistribute nuts.  Watch carefully!  Pine nuts go from perfectly toasted to burnt in a matter of seconds. Remove pine nuts from skillet and transfer to a small plate to cool.  Set aside.

2.  Wipe out the skillet with a couple of dry paper towels and return to medium heat.  Add the garlic cloves, still in their peels.  Toast cloves, shaking occasionally, until the peels are dark in spots and the cloves are slightly softened, about 7 minutes.  Remove from heat and let cool.  Remove peels and finely mince garlic.

3.  Place basil leaves, toasted pine nuts and minced garlic in the bowl of a food processor.  Process until relatively uniform in consistency, scraping down sides as necessary.  With the machine running, slowly add olive oil and continue processing until the pesto is smooth and homogenous.  Transfer pesto to bowl and stir in grated Parmesan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

To Finish

Kosher salt

Fresh tomatoes, chopped (optional)

Baby arugula (optional)

Lemon wedge (optional)

Extra virgin olive oil (optional)

1.  Boil a large pot of water.  Add salt.

2.  Working quickly, slip pasta coins into the water and cook for approximately 3 minutes, The coins should be opaque and float to the surface.  Drain pasta, taking care not to tear the coins.  I will often use a spider (a wide strainer with a handle attached) to retrieve the pasta and transfer it to a separate bowl.  This allows me to take more care in handling the delicate coins.  Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water and discard the remainder.

3.  Return coins to pot, but do not place over the heat.  Add approximately half of the pesto and a tablespoon or two of pasta water.  Toss pasta and pesto with a rubber spatula, taking care to not damage the coins as you do so.  Add more pesto and/or more pasta water until the mixture is to your liking.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4.  Serve, dolloping a little extra pesto on each portion and topping with chopped fresh tomatoes and baby arugula tossed with lemon juice and olive oil if you desire.

Notes

*If you make a double batch of pasta, cook the pasta in two batches.  If you get too many coins in there at once, they may stick together.

*Many pesto recipes call for raw garlic, but taking the time to toast the garlic as I recommend here will yield a soft garlic flavor without too much bite.