Saturday, May 24, 2008

First Recipe: Pasta "Alfredo"

Whipping up a dinner-in-a-box… With no box!

If this recipe doesn’t freak you out, you are going to do fine with this blog. I use the term recipe loosely, because I’m going to give you approximate measurements. Some things, like baked goods, require more precise measuring. But dinner should not. When I’m cooking, there generally isn’t any measuring at all. Let’s just jump in!.

With these one-pan pasta recipes, you literally simulate the results of one of those dinner-in-a-box mixes. With one exception: when you make this recipe, you have enough to feed the entire family, usually for less than the price of one box of prepared mix. With leftovers. And with no preservatives or additives.

We are going to use the starch in the pasta water to thicken our sauces. Simple as that. Additionally, we are going to customize the recipe to suit your family’s tastes, and any dietary restrictions, because you are in control of what is in that pan.

First, gather everything you are going to need, as well as a vegetable to make while the pasta is cooking. When I’m pressed for time, I yank out frozen green beans and sauté them with olive oil, a touch of butter, and a little garlic. Season with a dash of sugar, and salt.

Pasta “Alfredo"

Real Alfredo sauce is loaded with butter, cheese, and cream. Tradionally, you use a roux, make a bechamel (white sauce), and add cheese and garlic. Pasta is cooked al dente separately, drained and added. Too many pots for my taste. I've played with that a bit, so real chefs will probably need to forgive me or look the other way!

This pasta sauce is really quite lean for a cream sauce, and can be skinnied up a bit more if you like. Interestingly enough, once it cools, it remains creamy, and makes a perfect pasta salad base.

My favorite is radiatore, but linguine or fettucine are wonderful, too. Your favorite will work just fine! This recipe is for one pound, but once you see how this works, you can make it with any amount of pasta.

Cover the pasta by 2 inches.
Salt the water with 1 TBSP of salt, and add a dollop of oil (optional).

About 9 TBSP Dried milk powder. Use whole milk powder, or it will be too thin (see “Stocking Up” ). This is one of those grey areas, and you are going to use your taste buds instead of a hardcore measurement.

Salt, garlic or garlic powder, basil, sage, thyme or any other herb your family likes. Keep it simple: one or two compatible. Try garlic and basil for the first batch. Nutmeg is a classic with Alfredo sauce.

3 TBSP.+/-
Butter is for taste, as well as binding with the starch so the sauce is smooth and velvety.

½ to 1 Cup

I use the shredded Italian Blend cheese as a rule, which has 5 great cheeses in it. You can always shred your own, and the blend is up to you. Alfredo is about Parmesan, but you are going to make this recipe your own.

MEAT (optional)
This sauce tastes wonderful with chicken, beef, or fish.

You can use any left-over grilled, roasted, poached or pan-seared meat. It should already be cooked! Last minute idea: frozen cooked shrimp. Rinse in a colander until thawed and add.

Slice or chop while your pasta is boiling.

Here's how you do it- you just have to trust me that it will work:

Bring salted water with oil to a rolling boil, add pasta and cook until done. With these, you want to go right to “al dente,” which means, “to the bite.” Traditionally pasta is always cooked until just barely done, so it will absorb the delicious sauce. We don’t want it absorbing too much sauce, because we want to keep some of that creaminess. Your pasta is going to cook a bit more, right in the sauce, and will be a bit softer when done.
As an aside, this is the perfect time to get your vegetable dish going, while you are waiting for the pasta to do its thing.

Time to drain, BUT DON’T GET RID OF ALL THE WATER. When I drain the pasta, I use a colander, in case any bits fall out of the pan, but I do not try to measure the drained water. That would make it a pain in the… you know. Can you imagine doing that? Instead, here’s what you look for: You want to drain just enough water that it is nearly level with the pasta. There should be pasta sticking out of the water, by about ¼”.

Now, add your milk powder directly to the water, which should be approximately (no worrying allowed) 3 cups, along with the butter, and your spices and stir. The water should now look like milk. If it looks thin (bluish), you need more milk powder (remember you have to estimate the water, so use your eyes and tastebuds to gauge the milk). On the spices, I do not measure, but you might want to the first time. The idea is to shake them directly into the pot, though. Easy, remember? Garlic is important to this dish. You’ll want about two chopped up cloves of garlic (you can add to the water in the beginning to cook it if you want to), or ½ to 1 tsp. garlic powder (NOT garlic salt). Add other spices to taste, with a dash of freshly grated nutmeg. DO NOT ADD SALT YET. There was some in the water and there is salt in the cheese.

At this point, your sauce is going to look like milk, and be just as runny, so don’t panic! Bring it to a simmer. The sauce will thicken up once it cooks just a bit (about 3-5 minutes). Thickened sauce will still be a bit thin. Now add your cheese, let it melt in, and taste it. What does it need? More basil? How about the salt? Adjust accordingly. Throw in your meat, and you are done. Sauce will continue to thicken as it sets, mainly because the pasta will continue to absorb the water in it. Want it to be even creamier? Wait until it sets, (so you see the real consistency) then add a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, or a splash of half and half or cream.

As mentioned earlier, this pasta recipe makes a terrific pasta salad. You don’t have to do anything at all to it, but you could add vegetables and or beans (including the green beans or spinach left over from dinner) for a balanced salad/meal. I don’t add the creamy stuff at the end of the pasta, but might add a smidgeon to a salad. What I mean to say, is that you will do it your way, according to your taste.

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