Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thick As Thieves

As the winter months roll on I find myself turning increasingly to the pantry for help in planning a delicious and satisfying dinner. Although I'm the first person to extol the virtues of eating fresh fruits and vegetables over anything that looks pre-fab and preservative ridden, I also believe in moderation and modern necessities. While in the summer, for example, I'd encourage everyone to go out and buy fresh tomatoes at their peak, I admit it's difficult to go tomato-less for the rest of the year. That's why I'm not embarrassed to say that I like to keep sun-dried tomatoes in my pantry whenever getting good quality fresh tomatoes is out of the question. Sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil are wonderful because they don't need re-hydrating, and are picked at the height of the summer tomato season, so their concentrated tomato flavor is all the more powerful. I'd much rather use those during the winter months than settle for what the supermarket tries to pass off as tomatoes.

I recently caught an episode of Sara's Weeknight Meals (on PBS), hosted by Sara Moulton, formerly of the Food Network and Gourmet magazine. Her show is a great example of how to make fast, sophisticated dinners that could feed an entire family both on a budget and in a time crunch. There are no shortcuts to flavor, just great ingredients prepared simply and smartly. One recent episode had her cleaning out her pantry and using much of the staples that we all might keep to use in a pinch—pasta, canned beans and the like. It was a great example of when and how to use what lives in your pantry, and for me a great reminder that if I'm ever going to break down and not use fresh produce, this is how (and when) to do it. She made a great vegetarian pasta dish of linguine in a thick, creamy white bean sauce with sun-dried tomatoes and olives. The best part was that the sauce was thickened with mashed white beans instead of a roux, so there's no cream or butter involved and it makes the sauce all the more flavorful.

Her recipe was wonderful and reminded me that it's okay to get a little help from the store every once in a while when necessary. I do try and avoid prepared canned products (soups, etc...) because of their high sodium and preservative count, but in general I keep all of my canned food use to a minimum because of the actual dangers of canned packaging. While the super low price of most common supermarket canned foods is tempting, I do try and stick to purchasing Eden Organic canned beans and lentils whenever I can. Their cans are made without BPA, a chemical commonly used in the plastic linings of canned foods and has been known to leach into contents of cans. Lab tests have shown that the average amount of BPA that leaches into canned foods can cause breast cancer cells to grow at an alarming rate. Sadly, BPA is ubiquitous among common household plastic items, including several baby bottles, toys and breasts pumps, and is having a difficult time getting banned. So I do urge everyone to use canned items wisely and sparingly, and always remember to rinse anything that comes out of a can thoroughly. For more info on how to avoid exposure to BPA, go here.

Now that I've worn my soapbox down to a plank: back to the fun stuff. The great thing about this recipe is that it's super fast and has the potential to be even faster. The olives could very well go in whole (pitted, of course) and the sun-dried tomatoes could just be halved or even torn with your hand if you're really in a rush to put food on the table. And this dish would certainly take well to any other ingredients taking up residence in your freezer or pantry. Artichokes and capers come to mind, or for a delicious twist even anchovies or sardines would be tasty (a great olive oil packed tuna would be good too!). Something green and fresh would also be wonderful, like a little wilted spinach or even fresh basil in place of the rubbed sage, and chopped up crimini's for a meaty-but-still-veggie feel would also be divine. So give this recipe a try if you're up for a good pantry clean-out, or consider it your first step towards spring cleaning! 

Linguini with White Bean, Sun-dried Tomato, and Olive Sauce
adapted from Sara's Weeknight Meals
Kosher salt
1 pound linguini
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
3 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage
1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes (about 6 halves), sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch strips (scant 1/4 cup)
1/2 cup white wine
One 19-ounce can white beans such as cannelini, navy, or Great Northern, drained and rinsed
One 14 or 14 1/2-ounce can vegetable or chicken broth, or 1 3/4 cups Chicken Stock
1/2 cup pitted, brine-cured olives such as kalamata, chopped
Freshly milled black pepper
1 1/2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (about 1/2 cup), optional

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the linguini in the boiling water until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes; drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups cooking liquid.

 2. While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot. Reduce the heat to medium; add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sage and cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Add the white beans and broth and simmer for 5 minutes. Coarsely mash the sauce with a potato masher or fork.

3. Add some of the reserved cooking liquid to the sauce, as necessary, to reach a creamy consistency; add the olives and salt and pepper to taste. Toss the sauce with the linguini and serve. Top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, if desired. 


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