I really lucked out with Bryan’s family, they are all great. I often listen to friends tell stories about their in-laws and feel lucky to have it so good. A few weeks ago, Bryan’s sister Heather came to visit. We were excited for her stay and we wanted to cook some good food for her— a sort of belated Christmas dinner. She’s a vegetarian and it got me thinking about dietary restrictions and menu planning. Menu selection is guided by things like preferences (Bryan hates blue cheese), food allergies (nuts!), or lifestyle choices (vegetarians). Preferences are the most common part of food planning for me, I naturally don’t cook things with ingredients that neither Bryan nor I like. Things get more complicated when there are more serious restrictions like no animal products, no dairy, no gluten…but I think these restrictions are excellent challenges for the home cook. My goal is to make food that everyone will enjoy. Quality and taste should never be sacrificed regardless of the restrictions you might have when planning the menu. I also don’t like when there is a separate dish for the person with restrictions on their diet, it is unnecessary and I really can’t imagine very many situations when it isn’t possible to make delicious, fresh and satisfying food regardless of the requirements of your diners.
So, back to Heather. Although this wasn’t much of a challenge since we’re a pretty meat-free home, I wanted to find a vegetarian dish that was delicious, easy to prepare and could be made ahead (who wants to be cooking when guests are over?). I found this recipe for baked Orecchiette in one of the most beautiful books from 2008, A Platter of Figs by David Tanis. The original recipe calls for the addition of some homemade pork sausage but Tanis brilliantly suggests that you can make this vegetarian by simply adding the sausage seasoning to the pasta. This was a real revelation, and a technique I plan to use again in other recipes. With crushed red pepper, fennel seeds and fresh rosemary the pasta did recall sausage. Heather said it tasted like we had taken the sausage out after cooking, which for her was a really good thing. The bottom line is that this is very, very delicious and I will definitely make it again.
The recipe makes about 6 generous servings. It really is best the day it is made, although I still enjoyed it the following day for lunch.
Orechiette al Forno (Adapted from a Davis Tanis recipe)
- 1 pound orecchiette
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
- Olive oil
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 1/2 pounds rapini (broccoli rabe), chard, or kale washed and stemmed
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
- 1/2 pound fresh ricotta
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- Grated pecorino
Cook 1 pound of pasta in heavily salted water until extremely al dente, about 8 minutes. Lift the pasta from the water and spread on baking sheets to cool; drizzle lightly with olive oil to keep it from sticking together.
Using the boiling water, blanch the greens for 1 minute or so. Drain in a colander. When they are cool, roughly chop the greens and set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Warm the garlic in the oil, but don’t let it brown. Add the chopped greens, rosemary, fennel seeds and red pepper. Lightly salt the greens, stir them around the pan, and turn off the heat.
To assemble the dish, put the cooked pasta and cooked greens in a large bowl and mix gently. Add the ricotta and mix again.
Butter a shallow earthenware gratin dish. Put the pasta mixture in dish and sprinkle generously with grated pecorino. Cover and keep at room temperature for up to several hours.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Shortly before serving time, bake the pasta for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5 minutes more. Serve immediately.