Archive for Recipe Reviews

Pasta alla Norma (review)

A little ways east of town, there’s a “dented can” grocery called Central Discount. It’s always an adventure going there because it involves getting up really early to fight the crowds, and because you never know what sorts of things you’ll find. Last time I was there, I bought a can of anchovies packed in olive oil for 25 cents. At that price, I told myself I could work up the courage to use them in something. And then I got my summer issue of Cooks Illustrated.

I should pause here to say that while I grew up by the gulf coast, I’m not much of a fish fan. I had an allergic reaction to some sort of large fish, probably shark or swordfish, when I was a little girl, and had a great excuse not to eat it thereafter. There were some kinds of fish I’d eat. Tuna (mostly in salad form), salmon (mostly in croquette form), and fish sticks (with mac and cheese on the side). It really wasn’t until I got into college around the time the sushi craze was sweeping the country that I decided I’d try tasting a little more fish. I’m still not a huge fan, but there are some types I’ll eat (and watch out if there’s unagi around–I know, it’s not a fish, but still, it’s adventurous). but anchovies. Those have a certain reputation in the general public which makes them sound repulsive, but a general cache amongst foodies as a worthwhile canned food.

One of the recipes in my CI was for an eggplant and tomato pasta sauce known as Pasta alla Norma, a traditional Sicilian dish. I love eggplant and I enjoy looking for new ways to eat it. But as I read the recipe’s creation and looked over the ingredients, there it was. Anchovies. I decided to go for it–and I was rewarded.

The recipe only calls for a tablespoon worth, finely minced, which when cooked into a sauce of at least five servings is barely noticable amongst the other rich flavors. In fact, even upon opening the can, the anchovies has very little fishy smell. The recipe creation says they were added to give the recipe some “backbone.” Well it worked. This dish was amazing and I’m really looking forward to eating the leftovers.

One of the great things about this dish was how easily it went together. The only prep I had to do before I started cooking was to chop the eggplant. I was able to mince and measure everything else while the eggplant was in various stages of cooking. I even had time to go out to my porch to pick herbs without a delay in the cooking process.

A couple other notes: I didn’t have 6 tablespoons worth of basil on my plant, so I substituted with some fresh oregano and a little dried basil. I thought it was great. The only thing I didn’t really like about this dish was the kind of cheese it called for, ricotta salata. Unlike ricotta, ricotta salata holds it shape so that it can be grated on top. I splurged an bought a small chunk at my local co-op. The cheese has a slightly ammonia undertone that I don’t care for, especially with this dish. There are already so many other flavors, it doesn’t really fit in. This is coming from a person who loves brie, so it’s not that ammonia note itself that I dislike. In the future, I think I’ll try one of CI’s other recommendations for this recipe, pecorino romano or cotija, both cheeses I already know I like.

Overall, I think this recipe is definitely worth picking up a copy of the July/August CI on your local newstand. I still haven’t figured out if it’s a copyright infringement to post the recipe up here.


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Review: Lemon and Candied Ginger Muffins

I recently made these muffins and brought them with me to a class. They were a big hit. Great lemony flavor, and the ginger is not at all overpowering because it’s candied.

One suggestion: spray your cupcake liners with non-stick spray or baking spray. The papers had a tendency to stick to the muffins.

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“Streamlining Manicotti”

This recipe can be found in the February 2007 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

The author’s intent was to make manicotti in a simpler, quicker fashion. While the finished product turned out great, and I never found myself yelling at pasta or anything, it took a long time to get the pasta into the oven. In fact, it took 2 1/2 hours! Now, I’ll admit, I’m a bit meticulous/slow at measuring things, and I also don’t have a food processor for chopping up the tomatoes for the sauce (I used my kitchen sheers and snipped them inside the cans. It works, but it takes a good five or six minutes per can). But even with that, I can’t imagine the preparation taking someone less than 2 hours. This is definitely not something one could whip up after a long day of work/school and have to the table in an hour. But one could make it ahead of time and then pop it in the oven once home.

The recipe says it serves 6-8, and that seems about right. But as usual, it’s just me. So I decided I’d cook only half the recipe now and freeze the other half to eat later in the semester when I don’t have time for such labor-intensive cooking (I’m on spring break right now). So my 2 1/2 hours is for getting only half the manicotti into the oven. Granted, the actual spreading of the filling and rolling of the pasta (it uses lasagna noodles) was the least time-intensive part of the recipe, but that would definitely add at least another ten minutes. Also, since I was only baking half the recipe, I baked it for 30 minutes instead of 40, and the filling was still cooked through.

Being the not-so-affluent grad student that I am, I didn’t spring for fresh parsley. Instead I substituted a teaspoon or so of dried parsley. Would it have been better with fresh? Probably. But did I somehow contaminate the filling? Heck no. My one comment about the filling is that if you’re looking for a melty sort of manicotti, this isn’t it. The egg helps it hold together well, which I think is good, but I could see some finding it a little unsatisfying. I also substituted low-fat mozzarella, which sometimes doesn’t melt as well if it’s a topping on a dish, but inside the manicotti it was fine. Nice, stretchy strings of cheese.

I discovered there are two ways to read the directions on how to freeze this dish. The note reads, “The manicotti can be prepared through step 5, covered with a sheet of parchment paper, wrapped in aluminum foil, and…frozen for up to 1 month.” Now, step 5 is where the manicotti are assembled and placed into the dish with the sauce. The first time I read this, I thought it meant that I should assemble the whole thing and freeze it. However, I subsequently realized this might mean just the manicotti without the sauce. Unfortunately, I was packing the dish with sauce when I thought of that, so I did the first variation. I’ll provide an update on how it turns out in a couple weeks when I defrost and bake. I’m hoping that the sauce surrounding the pasta will prevent them from drying out. Guess we’ll find out.

One final note, the sauce recipe for this dish starts out a bit watery, but when the manicotti are broiled at the end (to brown the cheesy topping), most of the excess water evaporates. Plus, it’s good to have the extra water while baking, because the pasta continues to absorb it and expand.

Overall, this recipe was time consuming, but very tasty. It would be great to serve at a nice dinner.

Update: The thawed and baked manicotti turned out great, even if I might not have done the freezing the way the magazine planned. The only change I had to make was to let the dish thaw longer. I had it in the fridge for about two days before baking it.

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