The Perfect Summer Pasta

Sometimes I’m pressed for time and have to come up with a meal quick. And often, without the leisure to peer at my fridge or sit around thinking about the possibilities, I make the best food. This is one such dish, breathtaking in its simplicity.

Penne l'estate with glass of rosé


You’re a What-atarian?

I was at a dinner party talking to my friend Jon, who was poking at a plate of quinoa.

“What is this?” he asked.
“Quinoa,” I said.
“What’s quinoa?”
“Yoga food,” I said.
“Is it pasta?”
“It’s a grain,” I said.
“Spell it.”
He asked if our friend had grown it in her garden. I excused myself. Over by the stove, a gal was looking at the Venetian bean soup I had brought.

“Is there meat in it?” she asked.
“Yes, pancetta,” I replied. She looked puzzled. “It’s like Italian bacon.”
“Oh,” she breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m a vegetarian. But the exception is pork.”
My kind of vegetarian.

Although it seems a somewhat cut-and-dry concept, you meet many different kinds of vegetarians. I was doing a cooking workshop for my friend’s Girls Gourmet Group the other night. I should’ve researched their eating preferences first. I held up a dead chicken soon to be Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon and olives, and they all looked mortified. Turns out three of the five girls are vegetarians, and one is a “sometimes, mostly” vegetarian. (Which meant I had a window with the chicken for her…) But the three were not “strictly” vegetarian, as they had gobbled down a catch of fish last time I cooked with them.

“So you eat meat that swims but not that flies or walks?” I asked by way of clarification.
“Right,” they said.

I think some people are vegetarians for moral reasons, and others for dietary reasons. Some are vegetarians for proximity reasons (i.e. they’re partner is a vegetarian). I’ve always admired vegetarians. I love the idea that nothing was killed in the making of your meal. But I also love meat. More.

There are those people on the fringe who think that the plant cries a silent scream when you pull it from the earth. What do those people eat?

When we eat meat at our house, we (usually) eat very small quantities. A few ounces each of Kobe beef, a couple thin slices of pancetta in a pasta, etc. I think if the carnivore world at large took a more ethical approach to meat — eat less of it, know where your meat comes from and that the animal had a good life — the world would be a much better place on many levels.

I never could’ve married a vegetarian. Except, maybe, for that pork vegetarian.

Sonoma Market Breakfast

One sparkling winter Sunday morning in Sonoma County, as mist rose from frozen fields through the bare leaves of apple trees, with my wife and kids, my mom and the Wine Guerrilla and miscellaneous sisters, we went to a favorite spot for breakfast. Willow Wood Market Café in the tiny one-horse town of Graton. If you’re ever hungry and meandering along the Gravenstein Highway north of Sebastopol some morning, I suggest you hang a left on Graton Road and do the same.

Unraveling scarves and jackets as we settled around a large table, the comforting scent of sausage and coffee filled the sunlit room. Browsing the menu, my eyes gravitated toward the usual suspects: steak and eggs, smoked salmon, french toast and sausage. And then I spotted an interesting choice: the “market plate breakfast”. Warm polenta, a farm fresh egg, spinach cooked with coppa, roasted tomatoes and camboloza toast. It was a surprisingly harmonious symphony of morning flavors — even the things you wouldn’t expect on a breakfast menu like spinach and blue cheese.

Your kids might screw their noses up at this breakfast, as mine did. That’s just fine… give them Eggos, and save this gem for the grown ups. Did I mention it’s the perfect brunch, particularly when served to friends with a good, spicy Bloody Mary? Cheers.

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Sonoma Market Breakfast
Note: for my version, I like two eggs per and use pancetta instead of coppa

for each breakfast:

2 eggs
1/4 cup dried fine polenta
1/2 cup spinach
1 slice pancetta
5 or 6 heirloom cherry tomatoes
1 slice crusty bread
1 slice (or 1 tbsp crumbled) blue cheese such as cambozola or gorgonzola
extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper

Cook the polenta first: use 2x the water of the dried polenta you are cooking. Heat the water to a boil and add polenta, lowering heat to medium-low. Cook polenta, stirring every few minutes and adding water as it cooks away, for 20 minutes until thick. Cover and set aside.

While the polenta is cooking, roast the tomatoes. Make a little pan out of foil, add the tomatoes and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Cook about 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

For the spinach, cut each slice of pancetta into a few pieces, and saute until rendered and crisp in a tbsp or so of olive oil. Add spinach and cook briefly until wilted. Toast your bread slices and top with a little blue cheese while still hot.

Lastly, cook your eggs. They served poached eggs at Willow Wood, I like to fry them in a pan with a single flip. To compose your Market Breakfast, place some polenta on a plate with the tomatoes and cooking oil drizzled over the polenta. Put the spinach and pancetta next to the polenta, and the eggs next to that. Put a slice of toast on each plate, sprinkle some good sea salt and pepper over the top, and serve.

Me & Mr. Bean

“When young professionals and the socially hip raise chickens in their backyards, newspapers do articles with slideshows. When us Mexicans do it? People call code enforcement.” — Gustavo Arellano

So it must be for the resourceful peasants of Italy when they see their leftover bean soups appearing on the menus of fashionable trattoria in New York and Los Angeles. Something born of necessity and created from leftovers in Tuscany became something craved by starlets after their yoga class in Santa Monica.

Ask a hundred Italians how to make it, and you’ll get a hundred different recipes. And they’ll all be equally good. I’ve had countless variations of this soup in Italy, and in the states. I’ve made countless variations — some with bread, some with carrots and meatballs, meatless variations for vegetarians, and so on. Here’s a simple recipe that’s sure to please your guests. If you don’t eat meat or if you’re having yoga students over, leave out the pancetta. It won’t be quite as good. But that’s the burden you’ll have to carry…

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Sopa de Fagioli
Serves 4 -6

1 quart chicken stock
1 cup borlotti beans (or cannellini or red kidney beans)
A few slices of pancetta or bacon, chopped up
1 onion
1 cup roughly chopped cavolo nero (Tuscan kale)
1 sprig rosemary
1/2 cup small pasta (orrechiete, macaroni, etc.)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
salt & pepper to taste

Soak the borlotti beans over night. Then cook covered in water over medium heat for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until tender (add more water if needed). Simmer until most of the water is gone, and turn off heat.

Cook the pancetta in half the olive oil (1/8 cup) in a small pan over medium heat until it is well cooked, but not crisp. Add chopped onion and rosemary and cook for a couple minutes until onion is golden. Remove rosemary. Add onion/pancetta mixture to the chicken stock, along with the kale and the beans. Add remainder of olive oil, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add dried pasta, cover, and cook over medium low for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt to taste.

To plate, ladle a good scoop or two of the soup into a bowl, drizzle with more olive oil and top with a twist of freshly ground black pepper. You could also add a sprinkle of crushed red pepper to give it a little heat, or sprinkle some parmesan over the top for an additional layer of flavor. Enjoy!

And here’s a fun kids outtake:

The Boy & the Fig

People, I find, either love figs or hate them. Mostly it’s less about the food than the tree. If you love figs and you have a fig tree, you are thrilled every late summer when the branches are nearly exploding with ripe fruit. If you hate figs, you despair as the ground of your garden or driveway are littered with gooey, sticky, fly-covered fruit. Others have fig trees and are merely agnostic about them. “Oh, yeah… it’s a nice tree. But we never eat the figs. No idea what to do with them.”

Eat them, my friends, eat them.

My friends with fig trees are never surprised when they invite us over in the late summer and find me clinging simian-like amidst the high branches of a tree or scaling a wall. Some of them look at me skeptically and ask what on earth I’m going to do with the fruits — fig haters, they. Here’s what I teach them:

There’s something sexy and carnal about figs. The way they hang ripely. The way they burst open and reveal their ruby insides. Even the leaves bring to mind Renaissance paintings of Adam & Eve in the garden, body parts barely covered by fig leaves, succumbing to the allure of temptation. But I digress…

I dreamed of having my own fig tree. Last week, we had a surveyor out. We’d always thought our property extended beyond the fence but weren’t sure. I was walking the additional half acre or so we’d picked up in the process with him, and he pointed to a tree. “Well, that’s a strange looking tree!” I looked over, and there hidden among the oaks, a beautiful tall fig tree, reaching its limbs to clear the canopy. Right on the far corner of my own property! So maybe next summer, if you’re lucky, you won’t find me lurking in your yard and scaling your wall…