Pesto Rotini

Rotini Pesto

I’ve talked several times here in Discovery Cooking about pesto (traditional and some variations), but I’ve never really done an actual post by itself, with or without a little pasta. So that’s where we’re gonna work at today. A beautiful, traditional preparations, done the way I think most Italians would do it.

For this post, I used rotini, but you can make many kinds of different pasta with it. Personally, I tend to like the kind of pasta that let’s you pick up the pesto, like rotini, shells, and even spaghetti — which actually works pretty well. And by the way, there are a lot of non-pasta recipes that also are brought alive with a little (or maybe a lot) of pesto. Done right, it might well be the best pasta sauce ever. It’s got a green from basil, a bit of the nut flavor from the pine nuts and some Parmigiano Reggiano. It also has a great olive oil flavor, as well. 

What makes pesto the best? It’s all in the ingredients. The top basil you can get your hands on, the freshest pine nuts you can get, good Parmigiano Reggiano in a piece, some garlic and some good, mild flavored olive oil — something you might enjoy eating with a bit of bread, for example. For my pesto, I use an Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which gives me a very good finish. You may want to experiment to find one that you like.

Here is the recipe:

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A Real Thousand Island Dressing

Thousand Island Dressing

Yeah, you can make this. Yep. Your own thousand island dressing.

In fact, I’ll give you two ways to make this amazing dressing, one using commercial products and one using your own mayo, ketchup and even your own pickle relish, if you care too. Why bother? Well, whether you use only a couple of prepared ingredients or go to the trouble to make your own, the end result is truly unlike anything you’ve ever had from a jar. And I’m not kidding around. It’s way better.

The first version — written out below — is made using good mayonnaise, pickle relish and ketchup. And that’s a very good basic recipe that can usually be made in about the time it takes to cut up the shallot and garlic and give it a mix. At the end of the recipe, you’ll find how to make your own mayonnaise, some ketchup, and even some pickled sweet relish, if you want a pure dressing with no artificial ingredients at all.

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Salmon with Roasted Garlic Sabayon

Salmon with Roasted Garlic Sabayon

Sabayon, which seems to have started out as zabaglione, a sweet frothy Italian custard dessert beverage, is usually a dessert sauce made from eggs, sugar and wine. At least that was the case until someone figured out that the custard base could transformed into a savory accompaniment that’s especially good with seafood. It’s versatile and has a creamy texture that really sets off a  otherwise simple dish.

I’ve been making sabayon, both savory and sweet, for years, but recently stumbled on several dishes that used a roasted garlic sabayon, and that coincided with the arrival of some fresh, wild-caught Alaskan salmon at the local fish market. The mild flavor of the roasted garlic, tarragon and chives compliments the salmon beautifully and since the sabayon so resembled a creamy salad dressing, it seemed perfect to plate it as a salad.

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Shanghai Style (Red Cooked) Pork Belly

Shanghai Style Pork Belly

Pork belly was a thing in culinary circles awhile back and lately isn’t so trendy in the US, but in China, and specifically in Shanghai, red-cooked* pork belly has been a specialty of home cooks and chefs for generations. It’s been more than a decade since I last visited Shanghai, but I’d bet that hasn’t changed. Few things can match these chunks of slow-cooked, deeply flavorful, melt in your mouth pork belly served with a dark rich sauce brimming with subtle flavors. 

When I set out to research and make this dish, I recognized immediately that I’d have to surrender the idea of being meticulous about authenticity. I can get most of the ingredients online or at my local Asian market, but there is probably no chance that what I can get is identical to what I would find in a Shanghai restaurant. The goal was to come close, and this recipe does that. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to a friend from Shanghai.

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Quick, Easy Arrabiata Sauce

Penne Arrabiata

Penne Arrabiata is one of those perfect quick dinners that will definitely warm you up and — especially if you’ve made the peppery sauce ahead of time — can be on the table in the time it takes to cook up some pasta. 15 minutes tops. Even if you’re making the sauce from zero, you can have the meal ready in an hour or less — and you’ll have a restaurant-quality pasta dish to boot.

The recipe uses just a few ingredients. Tomatoes, crushed red peppers, olive oil, garlic and a little basil. You can add a bit of sugar if the tomatoes require it, and a bit of salt and pepper to taste. If you’re one of those folks who takes the time to can fresh tomatoes in summer, this is the place to use ’em. If not, you won’t suffer much using quality Italian tomatoes from the local grocery.

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Orange Chicken

orange chicken

Strictly speaking, orange chicken isn’t something you would find at a table in China. It does have roots in Hunan province, where you can find a recipe that translates roughly as dried peel chicken, which refers to the use of dried or preserved orange peel as a flavoring, but it’s really an invention of Chinese chefs (possibly from Hunan) who were looking for something to suit the tastes of American diners.

There are dozens of orange chicken recipes on blogs all over the web, many of which attempt to recreate a dish offered by Panda Express, which seems to be the gold standard. I’ve not had that version and this is not an attempt to match it. Mainly what I set out to do with this recipe was to get a little closer to what I remember of Hunan cooking, which has a little heat, plenty of fragrance and isn’t overly sweet. I searched for real Hunan peppers, but couldn’t find them, so I resorted to a Chinese brand of chili oil from the local Asian market, which worked pretty well, actually.

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Small Batch Basic Tomato Sauce — From Scratch

Maybe the best thing about summer is fresh tomatoes. And whether you grow your own and have a surplus, or simply go tomato crazy at the local farmer’s market, making a basic tomato sauce from scratch is one of the best ways to enjoy this summer treasure.

Sauce Components

Sauce Components

This sauce is designed for small batches — enough for 2-3 meals. It’s simple and versatile and does a great job of bringing out the fresh tomato flavor with just the right balance of sweet and tart, and a touch of acidity. It does require a food mill or the kind of strainer that’s sturdy enough to push the pulp through. Either item is a really good investment. You’ll use them a lot. 

I’ve read articles and recipes that spend a lot of time discussing the various attributes of different tomatoes for sauce-making. One thing that I’ve found is that while the choice of tomato can make a small difference, the most important factors are the ripeness, freshness and flavor of the tomatoes you buy, regardless of the variety. If you can, taste samples before buying. Great tasting, ripe beefsteaks are way better than unripe flavorless plum tomatoes any day.  Ideally, I want a mix of varieties, including big round juicy fruits and plum (or if you can get them, San Marzano) varieties. Just don’t fret over it too much. And by all means, buy or use the ugly tomatoes. No one will know.

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