Orzo Pasta With Roasted Vegetables

Orzo pasta

It’s the last month of summer and we all should squeeze in every last moment of that lemon drop sunshine–with outdoor baseball games with some chilled brews, cartwheels on the sandy beaches, and lazy Sunday picnics. I have the perfect pasta salad recipe for you to make that will make you the talk of the town; people will be clamoring to get seconds of this delicious melange of complex, but complementing flavors. On top of that, it’s bursting with color and is a gorgeous salad to eat. What’s food without presentational oomph?

Since I grew up in a household that mostly made Chinese food, I rarely had a chance to eat pasta salads as a child. It was foreign, the ultimate “American” dish, yet I never found one that I liked. If I ever did have some, it would be at a friend’s birthday party out of a Ralph’s plastic box, and it would always be cold with lots of pimentos–I hated that. So, I never really gave pasta salads a chance.

However, it wasn’t until I got older (and had a little more income) that I gave my palate some room to blossom and tried the gourmet, farm fresh salads of restaurants like Lemonade in Los Angeles, where even Asian dishes such as soba noodles with kimchi marinated vegetables and toasted peanuts are considered a pasta dish of sorts.

I found a recipe from Ina Garten (that I slightly tweaked) that combines silky orzo pasta, tangy feta cheese, sweet-roasted summer vegetables, fresh herbs, and a hint of smoky toasted pine nuts–all dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. It’s a crowd-pleaser (even your vegetarian friends will be happy) and something I could see myself eating long after a picnic is over (if there are even any leftovers!). Most importantly, the texture of the orzo pasta is what makes this dish special, so don’t try to substitute it with rotini or fusili pasta. And definitely serve it at room temperature–not straight out of the fridge or piping hot–at room temperature.

Adapted from an Ina Garten recipe.

Yields 6 servings.

Ingredients:

1 small eggplant, peeled and 3/4-inch diced
1 red bell pepper, 1-inch diced
1 yellow bell pepper, 1-inch diced
1 red onion, peeled and 1-inch diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 – 3 tbsp good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound orzo or rice-shaped pasta

For the dressing:
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3 lemons)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To assemble:
4 scallions, minced (white and green parts)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
8 oz. block of good feta, 1/2-inch diced (not crumbled)
15 fresh basil leaves, cut into julienne

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

2. Toss the eggplant, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with the olive oil, salt, and pepper on a large sheet pan. Roast for 40 minutes, until browned, turning once with a spatula.

3. Meanwhile, cook the orzo in boiling salted water for 7 to 9 minutes, until tender. Drain and transfer to a large serving bowl. Add the roasted vegetables to the pasta, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from the roasting pan into the pasta bowl.

4. For the dressing, mix together the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pour half of the dressing on the pasta and vegetables, mix it together, and then taste it. It’s all relative to taste, so add more if you want more of a citrus flavor. Let cool to room temperature, then add the scallions, pine nuts, feta, and basil. Check the seasonings, and serve at room temperature.

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Kale yes! Kale Miso Tahini Salad

kalesalad

Kale, like brussels sprouts, are one of those vegetables that have had a complete 360 in their public perception. (Whoever’s their PR camp is doing one helluva job.) I swear, a decade ago, kale was just a garnish I pushed aside with my fork while I was eating my country-fried steak at Claim Jumpers. But now, the curly leaves are sprouting up everywhere. It’s a staple at any restaurant–as a sauteed side complimenting rotisserie chicken, slow-cooked to resemble the buttery and savory Southern-style collard greens–or sold at any Whole Foods in bags of crispy kale chips seasoned with Herbs de Provence.

Dat fancy.

I know deep down that this newfound love for kale over the past few years may indeed be a fad, but I really do love the seaweed-like kale chips, and some macrobiotic restaurants make the best kale salads I’ve ever had–especially the one at M. Chaya in Los Angeles. Their salad is a tangy peanut dressing coating the curly leaves, coupled with slivers of peanuts and strips of red onion. Plus, kale lowers cholesterol and aids in cancer prevention. Count me in–I want to live to 100.

So, I’ve been obsessed with making a kale salad similar to that M. Chaya one. I ran across a recipe in LA Weekly by a chef of a different restaurant, who forayed in the world of macrobiotic cooking after his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s a touching story, and out of this situation came something beautiful–a recipe that can be shared with others to help them in their quest for living healthier as well. His recipe  uses almonds instead of peanuts, and the dressing has a similar tanginess to it, yet it’s different in that it relies on a tahini, miso, and lemon dressing–creamy and served best warm or cold. The shredded carrots make for a vibrant and colorful salad, coated in this creamy dressing. It’s quite pretty, and perfect to bring to a nice picnic in the park, which I’m planning to do since summer is just around the corner.

Note: I made just a minor tweak to his recipe.

Ingredients:

For the dressing:
1⁄4 cup white miso
1⁄2 cup sesame tahini
1 lemon, juiced
3⁄4 cup water
2 tsp. grated ginger
1 tsp. chopped garlic
1⁄2 tsp. chili sauce (optional)
Ground black pepper

1. Add all the ingredients in a blender and mix well. Refrigerate for up to a week.

For the salad:
12 oz. of kale, washed and chopped
1 cup shredded carrots
1⁄2 cup whole almond

1. Bring water to boil in a 2-quart pan. Blanch the kale. Drain and then set aside to cool off.

2. In a large bowl, mix the kale, carrots, and dressing to taste.

3. Separate the salad onto 4 plates, adding more dressing around the salad and whole almonds for garnish.

Tuna Salad Crunchy Wraps

wrap

Is it just me or does it feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything you want to do?

From working to hanging out with friends and exercising…or whatever it is you do on a daily basis, it’s easy to stray from any dieting or budgeting plans, and to say, “The hell with it–I’m going to gorge on that immaculate, double-patty (!) Big Mac slathered in thousand island dressing or that juicy bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with overflowing chili cheese.” (BTW, those are specifically my guilty pleasures.)

Luckily, I stopped myself from devouring either item the other day after a late gym workout–even though I was starving and LA street dogs stands are on every corner tempting me like sirens–and decided to venture into the world of making wraps instead. Mind you, I’m not usually a fan of wraps, and the only one I’ve ever truly enjoyed is the wild salmon with asparagus one at M. Chaya, a wonderful macrobiotic restaurant in West Hollywood. That M. Chaya dish was the inspiration and foundation for my rendition that I lay before you today: a whole wheat wrap chock-full of creamy tuna salad, combined with fragrant herbs and ribbons of sweet, shredded carrots, mixed with asparagus stems and slices of cucumbers, giving it that satisfying veggie crunch.

What I found was that I was able to make these wraps in about 15 minutes, taking about the same amount of time it takes to drive to the local McDonalds and wait through the drive-thru, and packed them for lunch for the next day, with time to spare to catch up on my TV shows! Easy peasy. Also worth mentioning, this wrap tastes much better after a night in the fridge, when all the flavors have melded together and the veggie juices moisten everything as a whole. Simple, healthy, and tasty.

Adapted from AllRecipes.com recipe.

Yields 4 servings

Ingredients:

2 – 5 oz. cans of tuna in salt and water, drained

2 pieces of whole wheat lavish bread

1 persian cucumber, cut in half and sliced into 1/4  inch x 3 inch slices

4 asparagus stalks, ends removed, cut in half

1/4 cup shredded carrots (I just use a potato peeler and peel ribbons of carrots to use)

7 tbsp mayonnaise

1 tbsp parmesan cheese

1/8 tsp of dried onion powder

2 pinches garlic powder

1/4 tsp of curry powder

1 tbsp dried parsley

1 tsp dried dill weed

1/8 tsp black powder

4 toothpicks

Saran wrap

Directions:

1. Boil water  in a small pot and throw in asparagus stalks for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, drain, and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, add the tuna and fluff with a fork until pieces are flaky and separated. Add in the carrots, mayonnaise, parmesan, onion powder, garlic powder, curry powder, dried parsley, dried dill weed, and black powder. Mix thoroughly.

3. Lay out a piece of lavish bread on a flat surface or plate. At the bottom of the bread, spread 1/4 of the mixture across from left to right. Lay four slices of cucumber across the top. Roundly and tightly fold over once until the tuna  is covered. Spread 1/4 of the mixture next and lay four pieces of asparagus on top. Roundly and tightly fold over until it is covered, and then keep rolling the rest of the bread.

4. Take two toothpicks and poke in each end of the wrap, holding the spiral together. Using a knife, cut diagonally in the center. Wrap in saran wrap and put in the fridge.

6. Repeat steps 3-4 for the remaining lavish bread.

Spaghetti and meatballs

spaghetti

I have been on an obsessive quest to make the perfect pasta sauce for years, and I am happy to report that I finally perfected it tonight.

Uproarious applause.

I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer buy any pre-made pasta sauces anymore because, frankly, who needs to? Although slightly daunting, creating your own pasta sauce–and not relying on those Prego jars that are chock full of salt and sugar that never quite fit to your refined palate–surprisingly becomes an art form. It costs the same or even less than pre-made sauces, and takes just an extra 30 minutes to make. And by extra, I’m talking about the added time tacked on from opening a stubborn jar lid.

Personally, I enjoy a pasta sauce full of sauteed garlic and onions, ribbons of fresh basil, and crushed tomatoes, brought together with a sauce base that’s on the sweeter side with lighter acidic notes. However, I’m sure other people like saltier sauces, hate onions, have a love affair with fresh oregano and parsley, and like whole tomatoes. So be it. Experiment, adjust, forage. Sometimes, my cooking is based on what I have  left in the fridge and what falls into my weekly budget, so, as the saying goes, no two snowflakes (or pasta sauces) are alike.

I may also be prone to use more basil nowadays because I just bought my first basil plant this year, and it’s the only plant sitting on my balcony. I usually announce to my boyfriend that I’m “harvesting” when I head outside to grab a few leaves.

Also, to be noted, the meatballs in this recipe only use beef because honestly, I can’t be bothered to buy ground veal (I’m not quite that bourgeois yet), and I wanted a simpler recipe. Do not fear though, the result of mere beef balls will be just fine, once you throw in some breadcrumbs and freshly grated parmesan cheese. “Voilà!” as the French say–why I’m speaking French when I’m making an Italian dish, I don’t know. But, bon appetit!

Adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe.

Yields 5-6 servings

Ingredients:

For the meatballs:

1 lb of ground beef

2/3 cup of Italian seasoned bread crumbs

1/4 cup of freshly grated pecorino romano (or parmesan), with extra for garnishing later

1 tsp of kosher salt

1/4 tsp of freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp of dried parsley flakes

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 cup of warm water

Vegetable oil and olive oil

For the sauce:

2 tbsp olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion (1 onion)

1-1/2 tsp of minced garlic

1/2 cup of good red wine (such as Chianti)

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

7 to 8 basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons

2 tsp of dried parsley flakes

1-1/2 tsp of kosher salt

1/2 tsp of freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp of sugar

1/2 tsp of dried pepper flakes (optional if you want some spicy kick to your sauce)

For the pasta:

1 lb of angel hair pasta (preferably Barilla brand)

Directions:

For the meatballs:

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the ground beef, bread crumbs, pecorino romano, salt, pepper, parsley flakes, egg, and water.  Mix and combine.

2. Using your hands, form the mixture into 2-inch balls. You will have about 12 meatballs.

3. Pour equal amounts of vegetable oil and olive oil into a large (12-inch) skillet to a depth of 1/4-inch. Heat the oil. Very carefully, in batches, place the meatballs in the oil and brown them well on all sides over medium-low heat, turning carefully with a spatula or a fork. This should take about 10 minutes for each batch. Don’t crowd the meatballs. Remove the meatballs to a plate covered with paper towels. Discard the oil but don’t clean the pan.

For the sauce:

1. Heat the oil in the same pan.

2. Add the onion and saute over medium heat until translucent, 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute.

4. Add the wine and cook on high heat, scraping up all the brown bits in the pan, until almost all the liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes.

5. Stir in the tomatoes, basil, parsley flakes, salt, sugar, pepper, and dried pepper flakes (optional).

6. Return the meatballs to the sauce, cover, and simmer on the lowest heat for 25 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through.

For the spaghetti:

1. Right when you return the meatballs to the sauce, boil 4-6 quarts of water over medium heat in a large pot, add in the angel hair pasta and cook for 4-5 minutes until al dente.

2. Drain and rinse with cold water.

3. Serve the pasta with meatballs and spaghetti sauce, and sprinkle a little extra grate pecorino romano/parmesan over it to taste.

Black bean and olive couscous

cous

I have to admit–I have a routine whenever I go to Trader Joe’s. I usually go a little before lunch, lurk around the food sample section (the more cooking involved, the better! I could care less about chopped-up squares of banana bread), chat it up with the person serving the samples, walk away, get a coffee sample with soy milk, and then discreetly go back to get a second helping–hoping that nobody notices. To rationalize this, I think to myself that the sample server and I are homies by this point, so they won’t mind.

This is just how I roll.

Over the weekend, I ran across a Traders Joe’s dish that was so delicious, healthy, and well-balanced in flavor that I bought all the ingredients they placed in front of the sample stand–something I rarely do. The dish blended savory couscous with hearty black beans, black olives, crumbled feta, and Goddess dressing, into a slightly tangy and light meal that took me less than half an hour to make tonight for dinner. I served it with a side salad dressed with a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette…and poured lots of red wine for drinking.

Yields 6-7 servings

Ingredients:

3 cups chicken broth

2 tbsp of olive oil

2 tsp salt

12 oz box of couscous

3.8 oz can of sliced black olives, drained

15 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 bottle of 8 fl. oz Goddess dressing

2 oz. feta crumbles (Mediterranean style preferred, but regular feta works too)

Directions:

1. In a medium-sized pot, combine chicken broth, olive oil, and salt. Heat until boiling.

2. Add couscous to the pot. Remove from heat and cover with lid.

3. Let stand for five minutes.

4. Lift lid and fluff couscous with a fork.

5. Add to pot olives, beans, feta, and Goddess dressing. Mix well and serve.

Shrimp and pork wontons

wontons

Forget about meatloaf or warm apple pie; when I think of comfort food, wontons are among the first things that come to mind. Nothing makes me feel better after a long day out in the cold like a hot bowl of chicken broth soup with little packages of joy floating on top, adorned with ribbons of bok-choy or gai-lan (also known as Chinese broccoli). After all, directly translated from Cantonese to English, wonton means “swallowing clouds”, and if made correctly, these heavenly little meat-filled pillows will taste just like that.

A traditional Chinese staple stemming over 1,000 years, wonton styles vary from region to region, all with different fillings from pork to shrimp to vegetables. The versatility of how they’re prepared as well as how they’re eaten is expansive. I usually make a large batch of wontons, freeze them, and then take them out whenever I want to boil them in some soup, boil them without soup to dip in soy sauce, or even just deep fry them.

When I was growing up, it was sort of a family tradition for all of us to sit together, chat and laugh, and wrap wontons. My parents would usually comment on how we were wrapping them incorrectly or putting too much filling in them – giving us perennial adjustments. At the time, I thought they were being overly critical, but now looking back, I think they were just trying to teach us how to do it right, so that the filling wouldn’t explode out of the wrapper when we boiled them. Fair enough. What better way to learn how to do something right than to get told you’re making a mistake?

***

My recipe comes from my father, who makes it seem like making wontons is as easy as riding a bicycle. The marriage of shrimp and pork for this dish is sealed together by a dash of sesame oil and soy sauce with a handful of chopped green onions. Once you get the hang of wrapping them, you’ll find yourself making these wontons quickly.

I find wrapping wontons rather therapeutic (a weird side of me where I enjoy assembly-line sort of work), but the one thing I don’t enjoy very much is deveining shrimp, which should be done. I have to admit that although it’s gotten easier the more times I do it, it still takes me awhile. Don’t be discouraged though and read this tutorial or watch this one (if you need to…because you could be a professional deveiner for all I know!) on how to devein shrimp.

Ingredients:

1  16 oz. package of square wonton wrappers (can be found in your local Asian grocery store) – yields about 45-50 wrappers

1 egg

1/2 lb. of ground pork

1/2 lb. of shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped

2 – 3 stalks of scallions, thinly chopped

1/2 tbsp of soy sauce

3 tsp of rice vinegar

1 tsp of sesame oil

1 tsp of granulated sugar

pinch of salt

pinch of black pepper

Directions:

1. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg and set aside.

2. Preparing the filling: In a medium mixing bowl, add the pork, shrimp, scallions, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly using one hand.

3. Wrapping the wontons: There are a few different ways to wrap wontons, but I prefer wrapping them like triangles (the easy way) or wrapping them as the boat style (just one extra step!).

Triangle shape: Put one wonton wrapper in the palm of your hand positioned as a diamond pointing upwards. Put half a tablespoon of filling in the center. (Do not overfill the wonton because they will fall apart when you cook them.) Using a spoon, add a thin layer of egg wash alongside the two top edges of the wrapper. Fold the bottom to the top, forming a triangle, pushing out as much air as possible, and then pressing the edges together to seal it.

Boat style: Perform the steps of the triangle shape. Add egg wash to one of the two side tips and overlap one side over the other. The shape will look like a little boat with a pillow of filling in the center.

Boat style wrapping

Boat style wrapping

4. Repeat folding instructions until all the wrappers have been used. Put wontons in a single layer on a baking sheet until finished.

5. Cook the wontons as desired:

To eat wontons alone without soup: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over low-medium heat. Add the wontons in the water (making sure there is enough room for them to move about freely) and gently stir every couple of minutes (to ensure the wontons don’t stick to the bottom of the pot) for about 5 to 8 minutes. You will know when they’re done when they float to the top. Check the wontons for doneness. When the wontons are done cooking, drain the pot and then and put the wontons in a bowl. Serve with soy sauce for dipping.

To eat wontons in soup: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over low-medium heat. Add the wontons in the water (making sure there is enough room for them to move about freely) and gently stir every couple of minutes (to ensure the wontons don’t stick to the bottom of the pot) for about 5 to 8 minutes. You will know when they’re done when they float to the top. Check the wontons for doneness. When the wontons are done cooking, drain the pot and then and put the wontons in a bowl.

While the wontons are cooking, boil chicken broth with some salt and pepper to taste in another pot over medium heat. Add in some sliced bok-choy or gai-lan in the boiling soup for a few minutes until tender. Ladle the soup and vegetables in a large bowl and then add five or six wontons to each bowl. Garnish with some chopped scallions.

To eat the wontons deep-fried: Heat oil in a deep frying pan to 360 degrees F and add wontons in small batches to the oil. Deep fry until they turn a golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the wontons with a slotted spoon and drain the oil on paper towels on a plate.

Notes: 

How to freeze wontons: Wrap a baking sheet with saran wrap. Put each wonton in a single layer on the baking sheet (without overcrowding them so they don’t get stuck together). Leave the baking sheet in the freezer overnight. In the morning, remove the wontons and put them in a bag and keep them in the freezer. Do not defrost the wontons if you want to boil them, but do defrost them if you want to deep fry them.

What to do with excess filling: If you end up with any extra filling, a good way to use it up is to roll about a tablespoon of filling into a ball – sort of like a mini-meatball, and repeat until all the filling is used. You can boil these meatballs in soup or freeze them the same way as you’d freeze wontons to use later.

Apple, sausage and herb stuffing

stuffing

Ahh the holidays – a time for the warm scent of cinnamon and mulled wine to waft through the house and tickle our noses, the sweet smokiness of honey-baked ham lingering on our lips, and let us not forget the rolling hills of garlicky mashed potatoes (enough to send any blood-suckers or lovers away) filling our already-stuffed bellies.

All this comfort food makes us quickly forget about any hardships faced throughout the year and brings the year to a delicious close of complete and utter drop-down-to-our-knees acceptance that our diets are on hold until the new year.

For my family, Thanksgiving and Christmas have always been the two holidays of the year where we stop cooking Chinese food for once (albeit as delicious as it is – you can only eat so much). My mother always prepares a 19 to 23-pound perfectly moist and browned crispy-skinned turkey (regardless of how small the guest turnout is) – always basted and never brined. My father prepares a glorious potato salad chock full of honey ham and sliced eggs, leaving the job of making the stuffing up to me.

A few years ago, we stopped stuffing the turkey with bread crumbs after we heard about health concerns involved with doing so. I thought nothing could replace the savory, glistening stuffing that came from a turkey’s cavity, and fought against the idea. But I later found the joys of making stuffing in a 9×12-inch baking dish – complete with a myriad of flavors and ingredients that I normally wouldn’t have added inside a turkey.

I stumbled upon Ina Garten’s recipe for stuffing that combined sweet, spicy and tartness – even bringing in the use of sourdough bread as a welcoming alternative to white bread. The mixture of cranberries, Granny Smith apples and spicy Italian sausage was just what I needed to kick up an old recipe…with a colorful presentation as well!

(Adapted from Ina Garten)

Ingredients:

10 cups 1-inch bread cubes of day-old sourdough bread (1-lb loaf)

8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 cups medium-diced yellow onion (1 large onion)

2 cups medium-dice celery (4 stalks)

2 Granny Smith apples, unpeeled, cored and large-diced

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped rosemary

2 tablespoons chopped sage

1 tbsp kosher salt

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 lb spicy Italian sausage, casings removed

2 cups chicken stock

1 cup dried cranberries

*Note: I bought a sliced loaf of sourdough bread, let that sit out for a day, and cut that into cubes. It was definitely a time-saver having pre-sliced bread and didn’t affect the texture at all.

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Place the bread cubes in a single layer on a sheet pan and bake for 7-10 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Remove the bread cubes to a very large bowl.

Meanwhile, in a large saute pan, melt the butter and add the onions, celery, apples, herbs, salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened. Add to the bread cubes.

In the same saute pan, cook the sausage over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until browned and cooked through, breaking up the sausage with a fork while cooking. Add to the bread cubes and vegetables.

Add the chicken stock and cranberries to the mixture, mix well, and pour into a 9 by 12-inch baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes, until browned on top and hot in the middle. Serve warm.

Note: The stuffing can be made up to a day in advance and left in the refrigerator until ready to be baked.