Saturday, June 13, 2009

Greens, Beans and Pasta

So, during the 21 years I lived in my Bayridge commune, there were a lot of cross cultural exchanges in the kitchen. For instance, I learned how to make curry from Steven who had been in the English army for 15 years, and because of my making escarole and beans and pasta "fazool", we all began experimenting with different variations of greens and beans. Although Italians from Italy would probably not combine all three, the idea of greens, beans and pasta evolved as the perfect one dish meal for our hurried life style and meager expense accounts. I continue to make greens, beans and pasta and it has become a dish I use in my cooking classes because it's ideal for illustrating the way of combining pantry ingredients with fresh produce.

To begin with, you need fresh greens. A perusal of Stop and Shop's offerings uncovered escarole as the best looking of the greens available. I have used swiss chard, kale and even bok choy for this dish. You need a green that will hold up to being cooked for 8 to 10 minutes in the pan, so I wouldn't use spinach for example, because it wilts to nothing in a minute of cooking. These instructions are for two people.

one small/medium head of escarole washed and torn into bite-sized pieces.
two cloves of garlic sliced
dried red pepper flakes to taste
6 0r 7 olives (I used black olives cured in oil)
4 heaping tablespoons of canned Canellini beans rinsed and drained
a small amount of penne pasta
fresh grated parmisan or peccorino romano cheese
good olive oil
Tear apart the head of escarole eliminating any browned leaves or discoloration on the tips of leaves. Then, fill a pan or the bottom of your salad spinner with cold water and immerse the leaves of escarole carefully washing the leaves. Pull the leaves from the water and place them in a colander or strainer before you empty the pan of water. If the water is dirty, repeat the process till the leaves are clean and torn into bite sized pieces. In the picture above, you see the greens having been lifted from the cleaning water and placed in another container. Never pour out the greens and water together-that just puts the dirt back on the vegetables.

Put a covered pot of water on high to boil. Meanwhile, clean and slice the garlic (always have SHARP knives), chop the olives, grate the cheese, locate the red pepper and your good olive oil and measure out two small portions of penne pasta. (Remember the greens and beans are the stars here) When the water comes to a rolling boil, salt it liberally (this means a handful) and drop in your pasta.

Here's everything in place, the greens are wet, the dry pasta ready for the pot!

The penne I prefer to use is from the De Cecco brand. The package directions accurately indicate the time of 11 minutes for al dente. Drop in the pasta and set your kitchen timer for 10 minutes.
Give the pasta a stir. Now, bring your attention to the rest of the dish. Pour 3 or 4 tablespoons of your extra virgin olive oil for cooking into your skillet and get it hot (med high). When it's up to temperature, you'll see the oil start to shimmer. Now, add the garlic and red pepper to the pan. The garlic should start to sizzle immediately or your pan isn't hot enough. After a few seconds, you will smell the garlic and see it getting slightly brown. (The tendency may be to rush these steps because the pasta must be added to the pan in 10 minutes. Do not rush. Pay attention to your pan.) Now, add the olives. Next, using your tongs, add the wet greens to the pan turning them to coat as you do. Now, add a ladelful of your pasta's cooking water to the pan. As you are waiting for the 10 minute mark, you will cook the greens on medium high heat, stir your pasta again, and make sure the water the greens are cooking in doesn't totally evaporate but is reduced by about half. Right before the pasta is ready, add the beans to the greens in the pan and make sure there is enough water in the pan (about 1/2 inch). At the 10 minute mark, you are ready to drain the still al dente pasta and add it to the pan for the final minute of cooking . (While you are still learning to perfect this step, I recommend you scoop out a coffee cup's worth of the water to add if your sauce tightens too quickly during this part of the process.)

The beans and greens first waiting for the pasta and then right after
the addition of the pasta

Remember now, the pasta must NEVER wait for the sauce. In the example above, the pasta has cooked 10 of the 11 recommended minutes. It will cook the final minute in the skillet at high heat absorbing the remaining liquid in the pan and becoming one with the greens and beans. Pay close attention now! After one minute, the pasta should be perfectly cooked and the sauce will have tightened so that a wooden spoon scraped along the bottom will leave a trail. Take the skillet off the heat and add about 4 tablespoons of your best olive oil. Plate the greens, beans and pasta and sprinkle with grated cheese. Buon appetito!

The magic moment. Notice the trail left
by my wooden spoon when I drag it along
the bottom of the pan.

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