Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Everyday Pasta for Spring and Summer

I spent many years being squeamish about all dairy products save for milk and ice cream. Yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese-- all made me shudder. I can barely write the words cottage cheese without cringing. Some of my disgust was cured by living in France. Yogurt there wasn't nasty and they had a substance called crème fraîche whose subtle tanginess soothed rather than nauseated. (Cottage cheese, however, will always be dead to me.) It was in France that I came up with this dish.

I sometimes like to call it a cousin of carbonara, but purists might rightly howl at such a designation. I only do so because I started out making a more traditional carbonara using egg. I then decided to smooth out the egg with a bit of crème fraîche and eventually just jettisoned the egg altogether.

When spring finally arrives and there are pea shoots and other young greens in the farmers' market, this dish returns and makes itself a frequent dinner at our house throughout the summer. It can be made with almost anything green--the aforementioned pea shoots, sorrel, peas, greens and even broccoli, which is what I used this past week.

I find myself frustrated that crème fraîche is so expensive in the States, so in the past I've tried to make my own version by culturing cream with a couple of tablespoons of buttermilk. For some reason, though, I have very mixed success. These days, more often than not, the cream never thickens and it is the thickness I want--to melt lusciously over the pasta. So this week when my culturing failed, I tried a different technique altogether. I mixed strained whole milk yogurt with the cream that hadn't thickened. I was amazed at how good a substitute this was for crème fraîche and will certainly make this my go-to method.
As the years have passed, I have ditched the cream and I just use strained yogurt.

This dish is super easy to make and can be whipped up in the time it takes to boil the pasta water and cook the pasta. If you are using broccoli for the dish, I recommend pre-steaming it in the microwave (or you could try setting a steamer over your pasta cooking water). As for greens or peashoots, I just grind them finely in the food processor and add them to the skillet after the bacon and garlic have browned.

We weren't sure how Elspeth was going to take to this dish. She's ambivalent about cheese and even butter but does like yogurt. All signs were good and I think she may even have called it 'yummy'. Of course, it contains three of her favorite ingredients: bacon, garlic and pasta. Now we've added Gwendolyn to the mix and she loves this dish just much as her big sister. In fact, we don't eat it only when pea shoots are in season--we've switched to kale most of the time. Every Saturday night is kale pasta night and the family never seems to tire of it.

I added the 'vegetarian' label because you could easily omit the bacon. In fact, I am planning on trying a version in which I use toasted, chopped walnuts instead of bacon. Deborah Madison combines cream, walnuts and garlic in a lentil soup topping and I think it would be great both with pasta and with broccoli.

Enough dried whole wheat penne for your family's dinner (8 oz for us)1 big bunch greens or pea shoots OR 1-2 c. peas OR 1 bunch broccoli chopped and pre-steamed
1/3 to 1/2 c. strained yogurt
1 TBSP olive oil
3 slices thick, good quality bacon cut crosswise into little pieces (we use pepper bacon, which is perfect in this application)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced finely or put through a garlic press

  1. Put your pasta water on to heat and cook your pasta according to directions/your taste when it boils. Use the heating time to put together everything else
  2. Prepare your greens--wash, chop or do whatever you need to make bite-sized pieces. If you're using anything but broccoli, plan on using the pasta-cooking water to cook the green stuff
  3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the bacon
  4. Cook, stirring often, until the bacon has rendered fat and is starting to turn golden
  5. Add the garlic and continue cooking for few minutes. Try not to let the garlic get too brown
  6. Add the finely chopped/ground greens to the skillet, still over medium heat, and put a lid on it for a few minutes to steam the greens
  7. Remove the lid and continue cooking over low heat
  8. When the pasta is almost ready, stir the yogurt into the skillet and turn off the heat
  9. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet and stir well--it'll be quite thick
  10. Taste and adjust seasoning then serve and watch your kids' mouths turn green around the edges

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