Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Favorite Pasta Salad

tri-color pasta
So here's the thing, I know pasta salads are kind of out of style. If you're like me, over forty and a product of the American Heartland, you've probably had endless variations of the macaroni salad we all grew up eating at church potlucks, picnics, and backyard barbecues. And later, we all ate more than our share of bland, soggy-noodled, vinaigrette-drenched weird pasta things off of restaurant and buffet salad bars, in the eighties and nineties.

And every time I put one of those salads on my plate, I regretted it later, and couldn't help but think of ways it could have, should have, and might be better-tasting and prettier.

Because I like pasta, and I like salad, so it didn't seem like such a difficult thing to combine those into something both tasty and attractive. So I started experimenting at home. One of the things I decided was that, while mayonnaise-based dressings certainly have their place, that place isn't on any kind of pasta except maybe macaroni. One of the other things I noticed right off is that cheaping out on ingredients is never, ever a good idea. Mediocre ingredients combine to make mediocre food.

I still love this pasta salad. And it keeps marvelously in the fridge.

1 lb of tri-colored rotini pasta, cooked al dente, drained, and set aside to cool
1 cup or so of raw broccoli washed and divided into bite-sized florets
1/2 cup or so, finely chopped red onion
1/2 cup or so of chopped red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup or so of sliced black olives
1 cup or so of those little sweet grape tomatoes
1 cup or so of shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup or so of good quality sliced pepperoni, hard salami, or a mixture thereof
1 ripe but not squishy avocado, chopped (I usually serve this on the side, unless I know the entire salad is going to be disposed of in a single sitting) Don't add the avocado until right before you serve the salad, in any event.

Once your pasta is cool, toss all the ingredients together in a big bowl. Be gentle. You don't want mashed pasta. If it looks like it could use a little more of your favorite ingredient, don't be shy. Add it in!

This isn't hard, either. I typically will cheat, and start with a package of seasoning mix for oil and vinegar style Italian salad dressings. Use good olive oil, look at the directions then cut the amount of called-for oil in half. Combine with a yummy wine vinegar, about as much as the directions call for, then add another good splash or two.  ETA: Add a good rounded spoonful of a country-style dijon mustard. I like the coarse-ground, your mileage my vary. (Thanks for reminding me, Mom!) The dressing should taste so good you want to drink the stuff. Then pour it over the mixed salad ingredients and toss again, so the pasta is thoroughly coated.

It's edible at this stage. In fact, it's pretty good, really. It's even better if you can stand to wait a couple of hours, though, so the pasta has absorbed some of the flavors of the stronger ingredients and the dressing.

Ready to serve it? This is the cool part, and the step that separates a dish that's really pretty from a dish that's just, well, a bowl of food. Take a few of those slices of pepperoni, maybe some lengthwise slices of avocado, and do a simple pattern on the top of the bowl. The design won't last beyond the first serving, but who cares? It's a simple touch that indicates you're delighted with making a dish, you're happy to serve a dish, and you take pride in what you've done.

Also, that you like to play with your food.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mom's Mexican Cornbread, sort of

I've been dithering about this blog for months, because I wanted it to be a place for lots of different functions. Collecting treasured recipes and remembrances. Pointing out that creating a home for yourself and your loved ones doesn't have to mean spending a lot of money, in fact, more often doing something yourself creates a sense of home and well-being that's much stronger than hiring a job out or having a special meal catered. Finally I decided I might as well just start off with a favorite recipe, then let things grow naturally, as they're inclined.

While everyone has their own favorite recipes for cornbread, I grew up with a Texan mom who was a kick-ass good cook, and I've never found any Mexican Cornbread recipe that can touch this one. Even so, I can never resist tinkering with it a bit, every time I make it.

This is a savory kind of cornbread, rather than sweet, and is even better as leftovers. Not that there's usually any left over.

Batter Recipe:
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 can of cream style corn
A healthy pinch of salt (if you're still measuring salt with a teaspoon or half-teaspoon, stop it. Start experimenting with pinches, instead. It makes it look like magic when anyone's watching you cook something that turns out to be really delicious.)
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 T baking powder
2 T oil (I like olive oil. Some cooks will tell you not to use it, because it tastes different. It does. It tastes better.)
1 or 2 eggs (I always use two, because my mom always did. We recently discovered, though, that the recipe she has, as it's written, actually only calls for one egg.
1 cup milk (Give or take, depending on how much other stuff you add to the batter in the next step.)

I make the batter pretty much like I'd make any batter, mixing the dry ingredients in a big bowl, then whisking the wet ingredients together in a big measuring cup, and finally stirring the wet ingredients into the dry with a big wooden spoon.

Optional stuff to add to the batter:
Bacon, chopped and fried crisp (We will be capitalizing Bacon in this blog, out of reverence for one of the best tasting things ever invented. You'll note that I didn't say how much. You'll want three or four slices, at least - but if you really like bacon, feel free to use a little extra.)

A couple of cups of shredded cheddar or jack cheese

A half-cup of fresh or roasted whole-kernel corn

A couple of chopped roasted green and red chilies or jalapenos, depending on personal taste. I use jalapenos. ETA: The canned jalapeno slices like you'd use for nachos work just fine! No need to mess with fresh peppers unless you're a masochist.

If you're feeding meat-lovers, you're also going to need:
A pound of ground beef, scrambled with some garlic and a pinch of salt, then drained (you can use a mix of beef and chorizo, but omit the extra salt if you do.)

Another half-pound or so of grated cheddar or jack cheese.

Put a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil in your well-seasoned ten-inch cast iron skillet and pop it in the oven on 375 F for about ten minutes (if you don't have a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, we'll have to remedy that. But in the interests of getting your cornbread cooked now that you've already mixed the batter, if you have to use a baking dish this time, we'll just make do. Skip the pre-heating step, though.)

Put a little less than half of the batter into the bottom of the skillet and spread gently into an even layer. Layer the cooked ground beef evenly over the batter, then add a generous layer of shredded cheese. Top with the remaining batter. You'll have to sort of dab it on, to spread it evenly atop the other layered ingredients. Top this with more shredded cheese. you can also top with a lovely starburst pattern of sliced jalapeno peppers, if you like them a lot. I do.

Pop the whole thing into the oven (still at 350-375 F) for 35-40 minutes, or until a table knife inserted halfway between the edge and the center of the cornbread comes out clean. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes after removing from the oven, and serve. Sour cream goes with your cornbread very nicely, but honestly, I love it best of all just plain.