Kitchen Tip of the Week – How to Cook Perfect Pasta

30 09 2008

Dried pasta is an excellent option for dinner: it’s quick, delicious, versatile and very economical.  It has suffered from a bit of a bad reputation in recent years as people steered away from carbohydrates in favour of low-carb, meat-heavy diets but in moderation, pasta can be incorporated into most diets.  There are also high fibre pastas made with whole wheat and grains that are a welcome option for many people.

The key to a successful pasta dinner is to cook the noodles properly.  At the Italian table, the pasta is the star, not the sauce.  The pasta should not be drowned out in sauce – it should merely be dressed with enough to compliment it.  Therefore, it is important that we cook the pasta properly.

How to Cook Perfect Pasta

The following pointers apply to dried pasta (spaghetti, penne, etc), as opposed to fresh. Fresh pasta has a much shorter cooking time and the texture is quite different from dried.

What You’ll Need:

  • Dried pasta – any type, such as penne, spaghetti, bucatini, etc.  See below for tips on what types of pasta to use.
  • Lots of water
  • Salt
  • A large stockpot with a cover
  • A strainer
  • Large spoon
  • Kitchen timer

Select your pasta.  There are literally hundreds of kinds of dried pastas available and they are all made of the same basic ingredients (flour/durum semolina, water and sometimes egg).  The shape you choose will depend on what type of sauce you’re serving with it.  For example, chunky sauces work well with pastas that can catch the sauce, such as rigatoni or orecchiette.  For a creamy sauce, you might want to choose a penne or macaroni so the creamy goodness gets inside the tubes of pasta.  For more information about pasta shapes, check out The National Pasta Association’s website.

 
Add water to stockpot.  The amount you will need will depend upon how much pasta you’re using.  However, it’s important that you use enough.  Some guidelines are as follows:

  • For each pound of pasta, use 4 to 6 quarts of water.  The rough metric translation is about 4 to 5-1/2 litres of water per 450 grams of pasta.  Adjust amounts according to the amount of pasta you are cooking.

Salt the water – generously.  Salt will help flavour the pasta.  Again, the amount of salt will depend upon how much pasta you’re making but the water should be almost as salty as seawater.  For the proportions given above (6 to 8 quarts) add about 2 Tablespoons of salt.  

 
Don’t add any oil to the water!  This is a kitchen myth that persists.  There is a belief that if you add oil, it will keep the pasta from sticking together.  The truth is, if you use a pot that is the correct size and enough water, the pasta shouldn’t stick together.  Adding oil to the water will only make the pasta oily, keeping any sauces from sticking to it.  

 
Bring water to boil on high heat with the stockpot lid on.

 
Add pasta to boiling water and turn down heat to medium-high so it doesn’t boil over. It should still be a gentle boil.  Stir pasta to separate it.  If you’re making long pasta, such as spaghetti, it will cook down so it’s fully submerged in about 30 seconds.  Cook with the lid off.

 
Using the cooking time on the package as a guideline, set your kitchen timer for 2 minutes less than the recommended time (which is usually between 9 and 13 minutes). Test a piece of pasta at this point. Properly cooked pasta is called al dente, which is Italian for ‘to the tooth’.  This means that the pasta has a little bit of a bite in the middle of it.  It’s not crunchy but it’s not completely limp and soggy either.  If it is not ready, cook for another minute and test again.  Cook until desired tenderness.

 
Once pasta is ready, carefully scoop out about 1/4 cup of the cooking water and set aside.  Add a cup of cold water to the pasta pot to stop the water from boiling and turn off heat.

 
Carefully drain pasta into a strainer in the sink.  Do not rinse!  (Note: if you are making a cold pasta salad, it’s ok to rinse the pasta to stop the cooking and cool the pasta for dressing).

 

In a separate pan, heat your sauce.  Add pasta and a few spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water you set aside. The cooking water contains starch and will help pull your sauce together.  Pour pasta into sauce and toss to coat.  Serve immediately. Enjoy!

 

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Mushroom Crostini

25 09 2008

For a great fall hors d’oeuvre, check out my most recent article for Suite 101:

Mushroom Toasts

Mushroom Crostini

Bon Appetit and Enjoy!





Welcome to Fall!

24 09 2008

In Canada, there are four very distinct seasons.  Almost everyone loves summer and winter has its charms but without a doubt, my favourite season is fall.  The crisp weather, colourful foliage and an excuse to shop for a new wardrobe are all great reasons to enjoy autumn but let’s not forget about the food!  Hearty soups, rich braises, spiced cider and pumpkin treats are only some of the culinary delights fall has to offer. Many of the farmer’s markets will be running for another month or so, their stalls overflowing with pumpkins, squash and apples.  Thanksgiving offers a chance to make your favourite autumn dishes such as pumpkin pie and juicy herb-roasted turkey. And of course, there’s Hallowe’en, which falls on a Friday this year so it’s a great excuse for the adults to get together and celebrate the season with spooky cocktails and snacks.  

So get ready for fall and check back for lots of great autumn recipes and techniques. To get things started for the season, here is a quick recipe for a cider spice mix so you can whip up a cup of hot apple cider to enjoy after a brisk autumn walk or an afternoon of raking leaves.  It can be used with apple cider or, as Christmas nears, hot cranberry juice.

Spiced Cider

(VEGETARIAN)

Makes 4 cups of cider – can easily be doubled

Spice Packet:

  • 2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half + 4 whole sticks for garnish
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 strip orange peel, about 1″ X 2″ – peel only, make sure white pith is cut off
  • 4 whole allspice 
  • Cheesecloth, doubled and cut into a 6″ X 6″ square
  • Kitchen string – about 3″ long

 

  • 4 cups (1 liter) non-alcoholic apple cider OR cranberry juice
  1. Lay cheesecloth flat on the counter and add all ingredients.  Fold up corners and tie tightly with kitchen string.
  2. In a large saucepan, add cider and spice packet.  Heat on medium-high until simmering then reduce to medium-low (do not boil).  Simmer for about 30 minutes, until spices permeate the cider.
  3. Remove spice packet and discard, pour cider into mugs and garnish with cinnamon sticks.
Bon Appetit and Enjoy!




Kitchen Tip of the Week – Stuffing Chicken Breasts

16 09 2008

 

You won't need these anymore when stuffing meat or vegetables!

This week’s tip is a great trick that I use quite often.  When making stuffed chicken breasts or pork tenderloin, I used to use a couple of toothpicks to hold things together. However, there is always the danger that you might forget to remove them all or that the toothpick will leave little wood splinters in your dish. The last thing you want is for your dinner guests to injure themselves on an errant toothpick! Here is what you can do instead:

Use a piece of dry spaghetti in place of toothpicks.

Dry spaghetti works as a perfect substitute for toothpicks.  It’s sturdy enough to hold things together and you can break it into any length you need (do not use thinner pasta, such as angel hair, because it is too brittle).  Use the spaghetti as you would a toothpick and break off any excess so you only use as much as necessary.  The spaghetti will cook with the dish so there is no need to remove anything.  And here’s the surprising part: you will not even notice a small piece of spaghetti in the finished dish (at least I never have!)  

Using dry spaghetti as a toothpick to hold a stuffed chicken breast together

To test out my suggestion, here are a few ideas for stuffing chicken breasts.  You could also use the spaghetti to hold together vegetarian dishes such as stuffed roasted peppers or cabbage.

Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Makes two large chicken breasts (quantities can easily be doubled or tripled)

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • Approximately 4 large pieces of saran wrap
  • Meat tenderizing mallet OR heavy bottle, such as a full wine bottle
  • 1 or 2 pieces dry spaghetti
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons neutral oil, such as safflower or canola
  • Filling – see below for suggestions
  1. Trim chicken breasts of any tendons and unwanted fat, particularly on the underside. Trim off the tenderloin – a small flap of flesh on the bottom of the chicken breast. Set aside to cook separately.
  2. Spread two or three sheets of saran on a clean countertop.  Place one chicken breast on saran and lay more saran on top, so it is completely covered.  Pound chicken breast with a meat tenderizer mallet or heavy bottle until breast is thin and of even thickness.   Put flattened breast on a plate and repeat with the second piece of chicken.
  3. Place your choice of filling on chicken breast and roll up tightly.  Secure roll with a piece or two of spaghetti, as needed.  Repeat with other chicken breasts.
  4. Roll chicken breasts in flour, salt and pepper mix.  Saute in a skillet until browned on all sides. Transfer to a pan and bake in oven at 425 F for approximately 20 minutes, or until chicken is no longer pink in the middle.
  5. Cut breasts into slices and serve.

Filling Suggestions:

Ham & Cheese – A slice or two of ham with a few slices of your favourite cheese (ham and swiss, ham and brie or ham and cheddar are all good combinations)

Feta and Spinach – Mix a few teaspoons crumbled feta cheese with some sauteed spinach.  

Tomato Mozzarella – Dice some tomatoes and cube a couple of slices of mozzarella.  Add a few torn basil leaves and season with salt and pepper

Mushroom and Rice – Mix some sauteed mushrooms with leftover rice or wild rice mix.  Add some finely chopped herbs (rosemary, sage or thyme are nice).  

Blue Cheeese and Onion – Crumble some blue cheese and mix with some pickled red onion.

Pesto Ricotta – Mix a spoonful of pesto with a scoop of ricotta.

Proscuitto, Mozzarella and Sage – One of my favourite combinations, it’s flavours are similar to a classic Italian dish called saltimbocca.  Layer a couple of prosciutto slices, some torn fresh sage leaves and fresh mozzarella.

Use your imagination – the possibilities are practically endless!

Variations:

  • Serve chicken with your favourite sauce, for example, mushroom cream sauce with ham and cheese or tomato sauce with mozzarella stuffed breasts.
  • Add a glaze to your chicken, such as honey-mustard or balsamic vinegar
  • You could also dip breasts in the following for a cripsy crust: 1) flour, 2) 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water and 3) seasoned bread crumbs.  Saute in oil and bake in the oven as above.

Bon Appetit and Enjoy!





Farmer’s Market Report

11 09 2008

As summer winds down and crops are being harvested, there is still a lot going on at the farmer’s markets in Southern Ontario.  Here are some observations about what’s happening this week:

  • Strawberries – I’ve been ignoring strawberries since June, when they were at their traditional seasonal peak.  I’ve seen them at one of the markets throughout the summer and assumed that they were some sort of import or hydroponic strawberry.  I finally asked one of the vendors what the story is.  It turns out that they’re a type of strawberry called Everbearing.  Everbearing strawberries are grown just like traditional June Bearing strawberry plants (ie, in fields) but they produce berries throughout the summer.  I bought a few to see how they compared to June Bearing strawberries but unfortunately the batch I got were sour and white in the middle. However, that may have been an anomaly so if I see them again, I might give them another try.

  • Other Fruit – Apples are turning up everywhere but I think of them more as an autumn fruit so I haven’t purchased any for cooking yet.  Once the days cool down a bit, I will be testing some great apple recipes such as tarts, crumbles and applesauce.  I did buy some honeycrisps and cortland apples for eating last week and they were perfect – crisp, firm, tart and juicy. There were also lots of plums and pears, which I will be experimenting with in the weeks to come.  
  • Herbs – There was an abundance of herbs available, especially basil.  They were being sold in bunches with the roots still attached.  This is ideal for making large batches of pesto to freeze or can. For a tasty pesto recipe, see Ricotta Gnocchi with Pesto.  

  • Tomatoes, Corn and Peppers – The tomatoes I picked up yesterday were some of the best I’ve tried this summer.  They were juicy and sweet, unlike some of the mealy ones I had gotten earlier in the season.  Corn is still abundant, as are green and red peppers.  I picked up some red shepherd peppers and despite their crazy shape, they were very sweet.   For a great Roasted Red Pepper Soup recipe, you can check out one I developed for Suite101.com.   If you you’re looking for tomato recipes, why don’t you try a Caprese Salad, Tomato Salad with Goat Cheese, Tomato and Ricotta Tart, Corn and Tomato Salad or Slow Roasted Tomatoes (I really like tomatoes, if you hadn’t noticed!)

It’s a great time to enjoy the abundance of the season so take advantage of it if you can!

Ciao,

Trish





Heirloom Tomato Salad with Goat Cheese and Sherry Vinaigrette

11 09 2008

I recently paid a visit to Harvest restaurant in the bucolic countryside of Eastern Ontario (see Late Summer in Wine Country).  Chef/owner Michael Potters bases his menus on what is in season and available, sourcing as much as possible from local purveyors. One of the salads on the menu was an heirloom tomato and Fifth Town goat cheese salad with sherry vinaigrette.  It inspired me to come up with my own version.  It’s similar to a caprese salad but the goat cheese and dressing give it a bit of a different flavour.

If you don’t like goat cheese (and I must admit, it’s not my personal favourite), you can use any kind of creamy mild cheese, such as a creamy sheep’s milk cheese, mild feta or even fresh mozzarella.  Because this salad is so simple, it’s important to use the very best ingredients you can find so skip it if you can’t find good tomatoes.   Sherry vinegar should be available at most grocery stores.  This salad makes a great starter or light lunch with some crusty bread.

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Goat Cheese and Sherry Vinaigrette

Makes 4 appetizer sized servings

(VEGETARIAN)

  • 5 or 6 medium to large mixed heirloom tomatoes 
  • 4 oz. mild goat cheese OR other soft cheese, such as feta, sheep cheese or fresh mozzarella
  • Fresh ground pepper and sea salt, to taste
  • Fresh chopped thyme leaves, to sprinkle over and garnish salad
  • Sherry Vinaigrette (see recipe below)
Sherry Vinaigrette
  • 3 Tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
  • 1 Tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme leaves
  • Pinch of salt
  1. To make vinaigrette: In a small bowl, add all ingredients and whisk until combined.  
  2. To assemble salad: Cut tomatoes into thick slices, discarding the part where the stem was attached. Arrange tomatoes on a serving platter OR as individual servings.
  3. Break goat cheese up with your fingers and sprinkle over tomatoes.  Spoon dressing over salad and sprinkle with sea salt and ground pepper.
  4. Garnish with thyme leaves.
Bon Appetit and Enjoy!




Late Summer in Wine Country

9 09 2008


 

I had the pleasure this past weekend of visiting my brother-in-law Dan and his wife Jenn in Belleville, Ontario, which is about a two hour drive from Toronto. The surrounding countryside of Prince Edward County (or ‘The County’, as it’s known by locals) has been getting a lot of attention over the past couple of years as an up-and-coming destination for food and wine lovers.  Despite its proximity to Toronto, it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.  We toured the county and spent the day sampling some of the best food and wine it has to offer.  Here are some of the highlights:

Modern art and architecture at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Modern art and architecture at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Our first stop was Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Picton.   Established this year, Fifth Town makes artisanal cheeses from local sheep and goat’s milk.  Their aim is to be socially and environmentally sustainable and their facility is a brand new, state-of-the art LEED-certified building.  There is a small boutique where you can taste samples of their cheese and buy products and related books.   We sampled a number of their cheeses including Improv, an aged goat cheese, Counting Sheep, a mild and creamy sheep’s cheese and Operetta, a smooth and creamy goat’s cheese with a wonderful texture and mild flavour.  They were also kind enough to provide us with a sheet of tasting notes and local wine and cider pairing suggestions.  

The aging room at Fifth Town

The aging room at Fifth Town

Our next stop was County Cider Company near Waupoos.  They specialize in apple cider, apple wine and ice cider. Their apple ciders and wines are crisp and refreshing and the award-winning ice cider is the perfect accompaniment to dessert or a cheese course.  They also have a small terrace where they serve light lunches with a wonderful view of Prince Edward Bay and Waupoos Island.  

As we were leaving County Cider, we passed a fruit stand selling apples at Orchard Coast Farms.  The trees in the orchards were heavy with ripening fruit so naturally we had to pull over and get some to snack on. I bought a peck (1/4 bushel) of honeycrisps and they were fantastic. Firm, crisp and juicy, they had the flavour and texture you only get from fresh picked apples in the late summer and autumn.

Long Dog Winery and Vineyard

Long Dog Vineyard and Winery

After filling up on apples, we headed to Long Dog Vineyard and Winery. Long Dog is a small winery in Milford producing excellent wines, including an outstanding pinot noir. It’s a favourite winery of Dan and Jenn’s and they visit often.   Unfortunately, their wines aren’t available at Ontario liquor stores yet so I picked up a Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris for my wine collection.   A short distance from Long Dog is Vicki’s Veggies, a family-owned farm that supplies a number of area restaurants.  They also have a small roadside stand selling organic, heirloom vegetables as well as seeds and homemade pies.   We were a bit late in the day getting there so there wasn’t a lot left (and no one seemed to be around) but there was a box where you could deposit payment for any vegetables you were interested in.  It was very charming and quaint and reminded me of a by-gone era.  We were fortunate enough to try some of Vicki’s produce later that evening and it was delicious.

Huff Estates Winery

Huff Estates Winery

Before breaking from all the touring and tasting for dinner we stopped briefly at Black Prince Winery and Huff Estates.  Huff is a very modern winery with a small inn on the premises and they make some great rieslings, rosés and ice wine as well as a few reds. Some Black Prince and Huff wines are available at Ontario liquor stores and they are worth seeking out.

We finished our whirlwind day with dinner at the renowned County restaurant Harvest. Harvest is owned by Chef Michael Potters and his wife Karin.  Michael had been a chef in Toronto but decided to leave the big city for a quieter life in The County. The restaurant’s first incarnation was The Milford Bistro, a modest little restaurant in Milford.  They moved to a larger building a couple of years later in nearby Picton.  The interior is warm and welcoming with rich, rust coloured walls, wood tables and artwork by local artist Susan Wallis.  The menu is constantly evolving to reflect what’s in season and they source ingredients from local purveyors such as Vicki’s and Fifth Town.  The wine list features a mix of imported wines and local offerings.  The night we visited Chef Potter was in the kitchen and the menu was heavy on seasonal produce such as heirloom beets and carrots, local corn and tomatoes.  To start, Dan had an heirloom tomato salad with Fifth Town goat’s cheese and a sherry vinaigrette while I choose the scallops with corn.  Jenn had the corn chowder with smoky paprika and shrimp.  Along with some fresh, warm bread and butter, it was a great start to the meal.  For his main course, Dan ordered corn cakes made with fresh corn and cornmeal and served alongside pickled beets, french green beans, heirloom carrots and corn foam. Jenn and I both opted for the beef tenderloin served with delicate, airy potato gnocchi, sauteed spinach, mushrooms and tiny, sweet heirloom carrots.   The beef was tender and juicy and both servings were cooked precisely as ordered – no small feat since we each like them cooked to a different degree (I prefer medium-rare whereas Jenn likes hers cooked medium-well).  To accompany our meal, we choose a local Norman Hardie Pinot Noir.   To finish the meal, we tried a trio of desserts and sampled each others: Dan had three miniature creme brûlées (jasmine tea, vanilla and bitter chocolate), Jenn had a strawberry tart and I opted for Karin’s classic chocolate cake.  As we left the restaurant stuffed but happy, we all agreed that it was the perfect way to end our food and wine adventure in The County.

For further information about the food and wine scene in The County, check out the Taste Trail website.

A selection of Prince Edward County wines

A selection of Prince Edward County wines

Many thanks to Dan and Jenn for their hospitality and for seeking out great places to visit.  Check out my recipe for Tomato Salad with Goat Cheese and Sherry Vinaigrette that was inspired by our Harvest dinner!

Ciao!

Trish