Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, where one man bumbles through culinary conundrums and comes through surprisingly unscathed. I’m your Mr Magoo of meal-time, Jon O’Guin, and today’s recipe is…look, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not going to be right. See, today’s recipe was made MONTHS ago, and I…well, I didn’t write it down. And despite having googled for it three or four times, I just cannot find the right keywords to-oh, no, here it is. Fifth time’s the charm, I guess. So let’s tackle Stove-top Fusili, and what it means to me.
Ravioli, Ravioli, Give Me the Formul-oni
There is at least one reader that joke is SPECIFICALLY for, so we’ll see if they get around to reading today’s post or not. Anyway, today’s recipe is something of an off-shoot from last Thursday’s post about changing recipes, since, in many ways, this LOOKS like a standard recipe, with a couple little additions. I mean, this is curved Italian noodles, served in a Cheese sauce, and cooked on a stove-top. This is almost just Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese’s fancy form.
Y’all basic bitches.
It actually doesn’t end up quite the same, as the sauce is notably thinner. (At least, so I’ve heard. We’ll…get to that) But before we can get to the process and results, we have to start with where we’re coming from. Turns out part of the reason I couldn’t find this recipe was that I thought I got it from a different cookbook. Today’s recipe comes from Dinner: Changing the Game, by Melissa Clark.
Melissa Clark is not a name that I was particularly aware of, and if the same is true of you, then at least we’re dumb together. As it turns out, she’s been writing a weekly food column for the New York Times for 10 years. She’s authored (co- or solo) at least FORTY cookbooks, including at least one I own from current cultural pariah Paula Deen (who, you know, kinda got the short end of the stick, if you look at the whole story: someone sued her for racial harassment, and, as part of the deposition, Deen admitted that she had at some points in her life used the N-word, and that she had certainly heard and repeated racist jokes in her life. Which are, you know, things that are probably true of the vast majority of people.)
A statement probably even MORE true of Georgian Senior Citizens.
Five-year-old minor controversies aside, this specific book by Clark has a goal. And it’s a weird goal, but also a kind of cool one: the idea behind “Dinner: Changing the Game” is to break the idea of dinners NEEDING sides. They’re recipes that you’re supposed to be able to throw together on a weeknight, and serve with MAYBE some bread and a salad. (Which, sure, are technically sides, but let’s be frank, no one counts the bread service as a legitimate side dish. Important? Sure, at some restaurants. I’d be willing to bet that Olive Garden stays in business based solely on the notable quality of their salad and breadsticks.) But that’s the core of the cookbook: here’s a meal with enough diversity of flavor and sufficiently hearty enough to eat on its own, and not require other additives. And that’s a pretty cool idea. So, how does today’s recipe work?
It is Dark, You are in danger of being Eaten with A Gru(yer)e
At its core, the recipe is quite simple: boil pasta and peas, make a cream and cheese sauce in the pan, add some spinach, and add the pasta and peas back in. Toss, spice, serve. Boom, boom, boom.
There’s a couple things of note, however. One of the first and most distinctive is the cheese involved. Gruyere, a word that technically needs an accent, but that I do NOT have the time to look up and then reproduce the next 10 times I say its name in this post. Gruyere, is named after Gruyeres , a town in Switzerland. It is, therefore, a Swiss Cheese. Which is somewhat funny, because a list of dishes that traditionally use Gruyere is like a who’s who of French Cuisine. Quiche, sure. French Onion Soup, of course. Croque Monsieurs and Chicken Cordon Bleu both snag it when they can. Tourin, a French garlic soup I’ve never heard of before today, but now definitely want to try, uses it. So how did a Swiss cheese become the darling of French foods?
Well, because Europe is confusing. Remember, Switzerland does border France. And France has multiple Gruyere-style cheeses, such as Comte and Beaufort. Which was fine, until the AOP laws came into effect. If you’ve forgotten since we talked about them in our Sparkling Wine post, AOP (“appellation of protected origin”, but with the O and P reversed because it’s in French) laws are a legal structure that protects various products associated with specific regions from copycat products made in other regions. Only Champagne, France, can legally make “Champagne”. Only Parma in Italy can make Pamigiano-Reggiano. And only Switzerland can make Gruyere, as of 2001. Before that, technically, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for those other cheeses to have been called ‘gruyere Comte’ or some such.
The advantage Gruyere (which, by the way, is the seventh time I’ve had to write the word in three paragraphs, so we’re definitely hitting ten before this post is done) has over more traditional American pasta cheeses is that it’s known for having a rich, creamy, and distinctive flavor. Which means you can use less of it to get the same potency of taste. Today’s recipe calls for a pound of pasta, 10 ounces of spinach, but only 9 ounces of cheese.
I don’t apologize for using an extra 7/8s of an ounce.
You’ve probably also noted that the dish is vegetarian, skipping any meat additions for two different vegetables: peas and spinach, which form the “greens” of the title. We’re not using up the mustard greens or collard greens from last month’s posts in this one. (And thinking about it, I don’t think I used them up in ANY capacity before vanishing off into the mountains, so I can only assume they’ve long been fed to the chickens.) While you could certainly add meat if desired, I like the idea of a satisfying vegetarian meal every now and again. It’s an easy way to help reduce global resource consumption, AND it’s much harder to cook veggies so badly that they give you food poisoning!
The last ingredient that might stand out to you is garam masala, an ingredient I have only passingly referenced once before on the site, (which, due to the temporal paradox of this recipe, was actually in reference to THIS dish) but now can take a little more time to tackle: Garam masala is a warm spice mix. Specifically, that’s what the name MEANS: “masala” is Hindi for “mixed”, and “garam” means “warming” in Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient form of Indian-based medicine that is WAY too complicated to tackle now.
I understood ONE word on this chart.
”Vega”, of course.
But, basically, the spices in garam are meant to “warm you” on the inside. And when you see a list of them, it’s kind of obvious why. Garam varies regionally, but the primary ingredients are Black Pepper, Cloves, Cinnamon, Mace/Nutmeg, Cumin, Coriander, Bay Leaves, and Caradmom. And if that list looks kind of familiar, it’s probably because the first half of it is the same as the list of Warming Spices I wrote up in a post about Winter Spices last year.
The garam here, as its relatively low quantity (1/4 tsp for a pound and a half of food) might imply, is mostly as a light accent, an almost subliminal hint of exotic warmth. Another great example of the kind of small additions you can make to more traditional dishes to spice them up, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Stirring Up Some Trouble
I don’t actually have a lot of pictures of the recipe, since it is so direct and simple: boil these, simmer that, stir in this. And most of the colors are kind of bland: beige cheese melting into white cream, tossed with tan pasta. I think the most dynamic picture I have of the whole process is this one here, showing the spinach wilting into the cream sauce
Hot, steamy, Dynamism.
What I DON’T have a picture of is how the whole process went to hell. Or at least, not one where it’s clear exactly what’s happening. Hell, I’m still a little unclear exactly what happened (and waiting 8 months to write up the post sure didn’t help). At the basic level, I know what happened: my cheese sauce seized up. If you’ve never had this particular issue, what that means is that the proteins in my cheese denatured, and adhered to each other, rather than remaining suspended in the sauce. The result was that what looked like a somewhat smooth creamed sauce with the spinach turned into firm, stringy knots of cheese once the pasta hit it.
It’s kind of hard to see, but look how clumped up the spinach is in this pic. It shouldn’t look like that.
Which is kind of weird, since that sort of reaction normally happens by cheese getting heated too quickly, and the pasta was relatively cooler than the spinach-cream mixture when the two were combined, as I recall. So perhaps it was the temperature shock of the two, or maybe the pasta was hotter than I thought. In either case, since the sauce seized the instant the pasta hit it, it was fairly difficult to coat the pasta and peas in the sauce, as the cheese’s cling factor was locked up into the spinach, and the remaining cream was fluid. However, while the textures weren’t where we wanted them, it honestly tasted fine. You had to like, cut up the spinach/cheese clumps and spear them with some noodles, but once unified they were good.
Heck, it’s not even visibly obvious whats wrong with the dish in photos, if you don’t know what to look for.
Overall, I’d call the core of the recipe a success, while sighing in irritation over the last-minute twist of the sauce seizing. It’s simple, tasty, and it’s enough like other dishes you’ve had that it won’t prompt complaints at the dinner table. And that’s not bad at all.
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THURSDAY: I WAS SUPPOSED TO FIGURE SOMETHING OUT, AND INSTEAD I PRACTICED MY BACK-UP VOCALS. UM…LET’S TALK ABOUT INSTANT POTS!
MONDAY: LET’S COOK SOMETHING IN AN INSTANT POT! THAT’LL BE A GOOD FOLLOW-UP!
Stove-top Gruyere and Greens Pasta
3/4 tsp kosher salt + more for boiling
1 lb fusilli pasta
1 ½ cups peas (fresh or frozen both work)
½ cup heavy cream
9 oz Gruyere cheese, grated ( a little over 2 cups)
10 oz baby spinach coarsely chopped
¼ tsp garam masala
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Heavily salt a pot of boiling water, using at least 1 tbsp kosher salt. Add pasta and boil to package directions, taking out a little early (pasta will finish cooking in sauce) Add the peas to the boiling pasta before the pasta is complete. Fresh peas should be boiled for 3 minutes, frozen peas 1 minute.
2. Drain the pasta and peas into a colander, reserving ½ a cup of the pasta water. Dry the pasta pot, and return to the stove at medium-high heat.
3. Add the heavy cream to the pot, and cook for roughly 3 minutes, until the cream is bubbly and reduced by one-half. Whisk in the grated Gruyere (And that’s the TENTH time I’ve used it, natch) , working by handfuls, until thoroughly melted. Add Spinach and stir until wilted add the ¾ tsp salt, garam masala, and black pepper. Stir to combine.
4. Add the pasta and peas back to the pot, and toss to coat. Use the reserved pasta water if sauce needs to be thinned. Season to taste, and serve immediately.