Baked Pasta and Cheese with Radicchio, Pancetta and Porcini Mushrooms

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I have four macaroni and cheese recipes that I keep in regular rotation, and this is the most frequently requested of the bunch. It’s also the most labor intensive, so I tend to make it one or twice a year, usually during the holidays. Radicchio is not the most traditional ingredient in baked pasta dishes, but it lends a beautiful light purple hue to the dish and despite all the cheese and other not-so-good-for-you ingredients, you’re getting your vegetables too.

I adapted this dish from a Food and Wine magazine recipe. I use less than half the butter and cream than the original, making it not too unhealthy for a special occasion dish.

Baked Pasta and Cheese with Radicchio, Pancetta and Porcini Mushrooms

Ingredients:

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
Boiling water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces sliced pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 heads of radicchio, each cut into 8 wedges through the core
Salt and ground pepper
2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
1 pound medium shell pasta
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups low-fat milk
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 pound Asiago cheese, grated
5 ounces Fontina cheese, grated
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a 3-quart baking dish. In a heatproof bowl, soak the porcini in boiling water until softened, about 15 minutes. Rinse the porcini to dislodge any grit, then drain and chop them. Discard the soaking liquid.

2. In a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in the olive oil. Add the porcini, pancetta and one-third of the garlic and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate.

3. Add the radicchio wedges to the skillet and cook over high heat until wilted and beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the remaining garlic, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the radicchio is slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes longer. Stir in the porcini mixture and the sage. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

4. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, melt the remaining butter. Add the flour and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until foamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and bring to a boil; cook, whisking until thickened, about 3 minutes. Add the cream and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Transfer the sauce to the bowl with the radicchio.

5. Add the pasta to the bowl along with the Asiago and Fontina; toss to combine. Transfer the pasta to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake for 20 minutes, or until heated through.

6. Preheat the broiler. Broil the pasta for 2 minutes, until the top is golden and bubbling. Let stand for 10 minutes; serve.

Cornbread Muffins

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I am a terrible baker. There, I said it.

I see recipes for bread and cakes and cookies that I’d love to try all the time, but I generally steer clear because more often than not, my “bread” comes out resembling cardboard and my “cookies” end up as hard as a tack. Take cornbread, for example. It took me four Thanksgivings and four cornbread recipes until I finally got it right. But now that I’ve found a recipe that works, I’m never letting go of this one. For the past two years, this has been my staple cornbread recipe. These mini-muffins are moist, crumbly and slightly sweet. Most importantly, they come out of the oven consistently every time I make them.

Cornbread Muffins

Ingredients:

1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter mini muffin tray. Whisk cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl to combine. Stir in milk, egg and butter.

2. Working in batches and cooling tray before each batch, spoon two tablespoons batter into each muffin cup. Bake until pale golden brown on bottom, about 12 minutes. Turn muffins out onto rack and cool completely.

Spaghettini with Fried Eggplant and Capers

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If I had to choose, eggplant may very well be my favorite vegetable. When undercooked, it tastes terrible, but when cooked properly it becomes sublime, buttery perfection. I’m no stranger to eggplant and pasta dishes, so when Food and Wine ran a Sardinian-inspired version, I had to try it. I adapted the original version to my own tastes, using less oil, substuting the Pecorino for Parmesan, using brined capers in place of salted ones, and omitting the homemade croutons altogether.

This version might just replace my standard southern Italian-style pasta and eggplant recipe, which includes tomatoes and ricotta salata. That’s the thing with eggplant dishes – you can never have enough.

Spaghetti with eggplant and capers

Ingredients:
1/4 cup brined capers
1 lb spaghettini
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
Salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Large pinch of crushed red pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with salt an let stand for 15 minutes. Lightly pat with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture. In a bowl, rinse the capers and squeeze dry. Meanwhile, in a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the spaghettini until just al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cup of the cooking water.

2. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1/4 cup of the oil until shimmering. Add the eggplant, season with salt and pepper and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the sliced garlic and crushed red pepper and cook until the garlic is softened, about 2 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a small pan, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil until shimmering. Add the capers and fry over high heat, shaking the pan slightly, until the capers are golden and puffed, 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the capers to a paper towel–lined plate.

4. Add the pasta to the eggplant. Add the Parmesan and the reserved cooking water and simmer, tossing, just until the water is nearly absorbed, about 2 minutes. Serve the pasta in bowls, sprinkled with the fried capers.

Roasted Red Pepper Salad

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I don’t like bell peppers. I never have, but lately I’ve been trying to make dishes in new ways that feature ingredients I’m usually not so fond of. So when I made a vinegar-heavy bell pepper salad a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it came out. So much so that I think I’ll be making this one over and over again:

Roasted red pepper salad

Ingredients:

2 red bell peppers
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons drained capers in brine
2 tablespoons basil

1. Preheat broiler. Meanwhile, half peppers lengthwise, discard stems and seeds, and put peppers in an oiled shallow baking pan.

2. Broil until charred and softened, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover and let steam for 15 minutes. Cool and peel peppers.

3. Toss together all ingredients and let stand for 1 hour to let flavors develop.

Hearts of Palm Salad with Shrimp and Avocado

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I first encountered hearts of palm at Pampas Grill, a Brazilian churrascaria in the Farmers Market in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. I have no idea how I’d gone so long without coming across the vegetable, but it’s been a favorite ever since then. I used them in making what is now one of my favorite salads:

Hearts of palm salad with shrimp and avocado

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons drained capers
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 cans hearts of palm, drained and rinsed
1 hard-boiled egg, shelled and chopped
1/2 pound cooked tiny shrimp
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper

1. In a bowl, whisk olive oil, vinegar, capers, lemon juice, shallots, mustard, and salt to taste. Cut hearts of palm in half lengthwise. Lay hearts of palm in dressing, turn over, and let stand for 5 minutes.

2.Lift hearts of palm from dressing and arrange on a large salad plate. Add shrimp to dressing in bowl and mix. Arrange avocado on salad. Spoon shrimp and all the dressing over the hearts of palm and avocado. Top with egg, and sprinkle with pepper to taste.