I know the thought of canned fish makes a lot of folks cringe, but for me, it verges on comfort food. Growing up, I ate it at least as often, if not more than chicken. In the midwest, seafood wasn’t exactly plentiful, and despite our “middle class” status, my parents had three kids to feed and a house and car to pay off on their small salaries. Making sure we could to live in a neighborhood that afforded access to good schools was more important than what clothes we wore or how fancy the food was on our plates.
I’m lucky enough to have access to a plentiful selection of fresh fish these days, but as I ran through the market after work I spotted a tin of smoked salmon in olive oil and thought “why not?”
Tossed with some arugula and a little quinoa pasta, it makes an easy, and delicious post-run recovery meal (or post-work recovery meal if you’ve had one of those days…).
Smoked Salmon and Arugula Pasta
My mom used to love Garfield. I could never get past the incongruity of a cat who loved lasagna. But, maybe I had never had a really good lasagna.
I love the idea of lasagna. Pasta, sausage, cheese, tangy tomato sauce… an easy, filling meal perfect for low fuss entertaining.
Unfortunately, it is an immune system nightmare, with one land mine after another. I see it on menus and secretly pine for a dish with so many things I can’t have.
Then, one cold evening, I came across GF lasagna noodles at my neighborhood organic market, and I knew my lasagna-less days were over. This lasagna is more Italian-American inspired than it is Italian; I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional sugo alla bolognese and béchamel. Like most lasagne, it tastes even better after a day or two. Of course, Garfield would never let it sit that long!
Good things can happen when you set aside your doubts – like how good can a French sauce based on butter really be without the butter. Pretty darn good, it turns out.
I blame it on the pasta. I’m sure the scallops, proscuitto, and asparagus would have been magical enough on their own, but I wanted pasta. And the pasta was whispering to me, “you know what would taste really good with this…” So, there you have it.
Pan-seared Scallop, Proscuitto, and Asparagus Pasta with Beurre Blanc Sauce
Over dinner in Cape Town one evening, the conversation turned to holidays, and one of my friends asked why Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. I’m not sure I had a good answer, but the next question had me truly at a loss for words – what does it taste like? It was a good question. I can describe what it taste like with other things, but the meat itself, not so much. Because, it doesn’t taste like chicken…at least not to me.
When I first moved to Italy, I was surprised to see more turkey in the poultry section at the large supermarket than there was chicken. I never imagined it was popular anywhere for anything more than Thanksgiving dinner, a sandwich filling, or as the dry, bland substitute for a fattier, more flavorful meat. Then I was introduced to fresh sage, and it was like I discovered a whole new bird.
I’ve made saltimbocca (cutlets sautéed Roman-style with sage and proscuitto) with veal and chicken, but my absolute favorite way to enjoy it is with turkey. I still don’t know quite how to describe the flavor of turkey by itself, but when it tastes so good this way, why describe anything less?
Saltimbocca di Tacchino alla Romana shown served with fresh gnocchi and pan-fried zucchini.
Once you try fresh, homemade gnocchi, you’ll never want to go back to the dense, store bought kind. The real deal are pillowy, tender dumplings. They are filling without being too heavy. Scared of making your own pasta? Don’t be. This is a great way to start.
Now, how about turning that homemade pasta into a weeknight dish that will impress your friends or family? The primo piatto Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, a melt-in-your-mouth blend of soft dumpling, light tomato sauce, basil, and gooey mozzarella is your answer. This is comfort food, Campanian style.
“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.” Forrest Gump, 1994
Imagine how long Bubba’s list could have been had he known of the all the ways shrimp and prawns are prepared around the world, from Italy to Mozambique to Thailand and everywhere in between. I love cooking with them; not only are they versatile, but they cook so quickly, they are great for days when you don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Without a doubt, my favorite vegetable to pair them with is zucchini, so when I had a craving for garlicky scampi but wanted something lighter than pasta, I decided to fill roasted zucchini with them, but these shrimp would also be great over zucchini “pasta”. Of course, if you want more substantial meal, you could always float your zucchini boat on waves of linguine.
Zucchine Ripiene con Gamberi all’Aglio (Zucchini Stuffed with Garlicky Shrimp)
When it comes to food names, I’m torn. I mean, “weeping tiger” salad sounds so much more exotic (and, therefore, more tasty, right?) than spicy beef salad. But, when the name doesn’t give you a clue to the ingredients, how adventurous are you willing to be? Then you have names that practically list every ingredient, which could almost make you rule out trying the dish just because one of the ingredients didn’t make you swoon.
Comfort food is like your favorite pair of worn-in jeans and the quilt that’s been passed down for a couple of generations and seen better days; it makes you feel good even if its not much to look at. It doesn’t need a fancy name, thank you very much. In Italy, pastas dishes are usually named based on their contents, hence penne rigate con salsiccia, funghi, piselli, e panna. If you want to call it “cena pigro della nonna (Grandma’s Lazy Dinner),” that’s between you and her.
When I want a creamy but dairy-free pasta sauce, I usually cheat and stir in vegan cream cheese or sour cream depending on the flavor I’m going for. I’ve avoided nut-based sauces out of fear you might be able to taste the nuttiness, so I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted this before putting it on the pasta. You couldn’t taste the nuts at all.
Blackened Shrimp and Andouille Pasta with Faux Alfredo
It’s not that I ever hated kale. Until I lived in Italy, i’m pretty sure that I’d never seen it much less tasted it. This dish sold me for two reasons, the layered flavors and how quickly it came together. Oh, and did I mention its healthy, satisfying more than 35% of the RDA of Vitamin A, almost 20% of Vitamin C, and almost 30% of Iron all while offering 17g of protein, 11g of fiber, and only 6g of fat . More importantly, the leftovers – if there are any – taste even better.
Pasta with Sausage, Kale, and Cannelini Beans
I never had a craving for pasta until I found out I couldn’t have it anymore. At the time, the gluten-free pastas on the market were inedible, and my only experiences with sauces came from a can or jar, so I was content to write off ever having it again.
Italians, not accepting life without at least an occasional plate of pasta, had already discovered gluten-free replacements for semolina that could still deliver the perfect strand of al dente spaghetti. I’m not even sure why I even bothered to walk down that aisle at the market, but it was like discovering a whole new world. I bought up several boxes – out of fear that I would never again find gluten free pasta – without a clue of what I would do with it.
Enter an Italian neighbor eager to teach me. Despite watching her make meatballs at least a dozen times, I never thought to write down the recipe, because they included bread crumbs. When a friend said he was craving spaghetti and meatballs, I was determined to recreate a gluten and egg free version. I like to use a few slices of crushed gluten free crisp bread, but you can try panko or cracker crumbs. Play around with the spices in the meatballs to suit your tastes. The tomato sauce isn’t strongly seasoned, so that it balances the flavorful meatballs.
Spaghetti & Meatballs