A week or so back, I took a few revelations I received while preparing for a dinner party and applied them to my continuing efforts to speak coherently in response to the question, "So, what do you cook?" Thanks are in order to those of you who left comments encouraging me to consider my working response--"I cook colors"--as something more than a cop-out. The human appetite, you told me, will seek out foods of a certain hue in order to insure that certain vitamin and mineral needs be satisfied. Turns out my cooking philosophy is less neurosis and more science than I had imagined. A recent celebrity diet trend (the mononymous 80's singer, Tiffany, is a devotee) promises dramatic weight loss to those poor souls who swear off all white foods in favor of the color spectrum. It's sad to think that Tiffany never gets to enjoy the healthy pleasures of egg-white omelets or bowls of whipped cauliflower, but I can imagine how such a diet might work.
There is an entire niche of diet books dedicated to eating by color. Although I feel like bursting into tears at the prospect of giving up white foods ["Hello, my name is Sarah, and I am addicted to bread"], there is something to the idea that color is good for you. The more colorful the food--as long as it has not been doused with artificial coloring--the fresher, less processed, more nutritious, and flavorful it will be.
It was in a moment of color-earnestness that I decided to make my own fresh spinach pasta for a recent dinner party. Sure, the radish crostini and mango-cucumber gazpacho promised color enough, but I had been wooed by a series of photographs that accompanied an article in Martha Stewart's May issue of Living called "Pasta Outside the Box." Beet pasta, yellow pepper pasta, carrot pasta, spinach pasta: so easy to make, Ms. Stewart promised, and so colorful. If I could make simple, blandly-hued egg pasta, I could make exotic jewel-toned vegetable pasta...right?
It was the hottest day yet this summer, and there I was, roasting beets for beet linguine at 375 degrees for nearly two hours. I peeled them, processed them, mixed in a few eggs, and kneaded in flour. The resulting blob was satisfyingly neon-pink, but its texture was nothing like pasta dough. Gummy, gooey, one heaping tablespoon of flour added after another. Too many beets, I think. So, I gritted my teeth, tossed the blob into the trash, wiped the sweat from my brow, and steamed some spinach. Plan B: spinach linguine. Green would be the new pink.
I'm not sure what went wrong. I blame it on the weather, but it could have been my increasingly dampened attitude. The dough came together nicely. It rolled out nicely, too. Wary of the humidity, I draped the sheets of dough over a clothes-drying rack to let them firm up a bit before cutting them. When I took this picture, I was still happy:
After this picture was taken, everything started to fall apart. The pasta cutter failed to separate the sheets into strands of linguine. I tried to tease apart the individual strands of pasta following the indentations made by the cutter as the dough stretched and expanded in my hot hands. I kept at it, though, tossing the deformed strands in flour and leaving them to "dry" a bit on baking sheets. Instead of drying, they started to stick to each other. I left off my efforts to cut the dough, and set to teasing apart once again the strands which had now gathered themselves into a gummy green nest. No use. I started to cry a little.
Patrick wandered into the kitchen just as I was about to chuck the whole batch. Mesmerized by the color, I think, he blocked my path to the trashcan. Then, I (grumpy) and he (ever optimistic) commenced to re-knead the tangled masses into workable dough, run them through the pasta roller, and cut them once again into linguine. Drier by this point, the dough separated more easily, but we hung it to dry a bit longer just to keep the stands from sticking to each other. When I took this picture, I was cranky, but hopeful:
When I went to remove the linguine from the rack, they were so dry that they broke into pieces. I would have started to cry a little again, but I had, by this point, sent Patrick out to buy some fresh pasta. Plan C: Whole Foods Egg Pasta. He wouldn't leave before I promised to freeze the fruits of our labor. Dinner was nice, and colorful enough, even with hum-drum pale-yellow pasta. A few nights later, Patrick and I sat down to what he, who is prone to superlatives, called "the best pasta ever."
The pasta was good...not, to my mind, the "best ever," but satisfying in the way that hard-won meals tend to be, and certainly aesthetically pleasing. This stuff is green. And, in this case, the color packs a nutrition-punch. With almost a pound of spinach in it, this pasta is half salad. That means, Tiffany, this pasta is a safe food. I'm inclined to think that Patrick's exuberant praise came from his personal investment in the meal. Food tastes better, I think, when you've been exposed to the intricacies of its production.
Once you have the pasta, this particular dish is easy and fast. Have everything chopped in advance so that your cooked pasta doesn't sit around getting soggy. Fresh tomatoes would be nice, too. I happened to have some good sun-dried ones. If your mozzarella is packaged in liquid, squeeze out the excess with paper towels before you chop it. Otherwise, it will leak unattractively onto your pasta.
Fresh (Spinach) Linguine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Pan-Roasted Garlic
1 pound fresh (spinach) linguine: I'm still in search of the best recipe. You can find Ms. Stewart's recipe here. Williams-Sonoma gives an online version here. You can sometimes find fresh spinach pasta at Whole Foods. You can also substitute any fresh pasta, homemade or store bought.
Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper
8 cloves garlic, cut into quarters
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1. Over high heat, bring large pot of salted water to boil for pasta.
2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil over medium-low heat in a small skillet. Add garlic, and roast, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, about 10 minutes.
3. Cook pasta in salted water until just tender, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes.
4. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water. Drain pasta and return to pot.
5. Add garlic, oil, and reserved water to pasta. Using tongs, toss until excess liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Divide pasta among 4 plates. Top with sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and lemon zest. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and serve.