Chef Notes: Late Harvest Cavatappi
Pasta is always a winner in my house. No one ever complains, regardless of what’s in it, and it’s great for batch cooking. The leftovers can be sent with Al for lunch or warmed up a few days later with no complaints. But not all pastas are created equal. These days the choices can be overwhelming. There’s low carb, gluten free, whole grain, high protein, high fiber, and vegetable based pastas. I almost always opt for low carb/high fiber pasta but the whole grain has come a long way in the last few years. I recommend using one that is right for your body and your family but, at the very least, why not pack it full of seasonal, healthy, and flavorful foods.
Once you’ve chosen your pasta, what’s the best way to prepare it? There are a few basic cooking techniques for dried pasta. First of all, don’t skimp on the water. Use a very large pot. You can’t really use too much water but too little will leave you with pasta that has stuck together, not cooked evenly, and water that is very starchy. Second of all, unless you are really watching your salt intake, be generous with the salt in the water. I put in a nice big handful. Your water should be salty to the taste. If your pasta is properly salted you will not need to add as much as you’re finishing your dish. However, salt is all you should add. Never add oil to your cooking water. Oil will prevent your sauce or other flavorings from sticking to the pasta. Your sauce will slide off instead of sticking to it. Third of all, do not overcook it. I always assume that it will actually be ready about 2 minutes earlier than the box directions. You want to drain it when it’s just a few seconds away from being perfect as pasta will “carry-over cook” as you are draining it. And if it’s ultimately headed into the oven for further cooking (like lasagna, baked ziti, or macaroni and cheese) pull it when it has quite a bit of firmness to it, probably a little less than half of the cooking time on the box. Lastly, and for gods sake, you should almost never, ever rinse it afterwards. The only exception I can think of to this rule is if you’ve overcooked it and you must stop the cooking process immediately. Otherwise it is a no-no. Pretty simple guidelines but necessary for optimal results. Some chefs recommend reserving a bit of the cooking liquid for possible use to thicken or even thin out a sauce as you’re putting it altogether. almost never need it but it certainly doesn’t hurt to set a little aside just in case.
I recently threw together the following dish. It was very popular and it’s versatile. You can leave out the ham or replace it with cooked bacon or sausage, shredded chicken, or cooked shrimp or scallops. The leaks can be switched out for a large onion. The butternut squash could be pumpkin or acorn squash. Spinach can be used in place of kale. And if you’re not a big goat cheese fan you can substitute mascarpone.
Late Harvest Cavatappi
1 lb skinned, cleaned butternut squash, medium dice
1 lb box dried cavatappi pasta
¾ lb ham steak, medium dice
1 lg leak, halved and thinly sliced, white and tender green parts only
1 Tbs finely minced garlic
½ c dry white wine (or chicken or veg stock)
2 c chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tbs roughly chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbs finely chopped sage
1 tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
4 oz goat cheese, crumbled
8 oz bag prepared kale
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
½ of a nutmeg, finely ground
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat oven to 450. Toss the diced butternut squash with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Spread on a baking sheet and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or until cooked through and lightly browned.
Meanwhile, begin heating the water for the pasta and cook according to package directions, minus 2 minutes or so. Be sure to reserve a cup of the pasta water when you drain the cooked pasta.
While your pasta water is heating and the pasta is cooking, in a large skillet over medium high heat sauté the ham, leak, and garlic in enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the skillet. When the ham is nicely browned, deglaze the pan with the white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add the stock, thyme, sage, pepper flakes and simmer until the liquid is reduced by about half. Add the crumbed goat cheese and stir until melted. Add the kale, a pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper and cook until the kale is just wilted. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley and nutmeg.
In a large bowl, combine the pasta and ham mixture. If the mixture seems too dry add a couple of splashes of the reserved pasta water. Adjust the seasonings and serve.
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