Friday, March 30, 2012

Spaghetti with Caramelized Onions, Roasted Cauliflower, Parmesan and Pine Nuts

Well, in true Big Mary style I have fretted and 2nd guessed myself for more than a month over this recipe.  It's an old favorite of mine that I developed years ago trying to revitalize the vegetarian pasta offerings at an old kitchen best left unremembered.  Trouble is I was always making it for around 50 people or more at a time, and we just never got around to writing up a recipe for it.

And anytime I've made it at home, it was casually thrown together based on a mix of how much cauliflower I had and a generous supply of tried and true kitchen instinct.  When I got around to dragging out the scale and measuring spoons, back in ... oh Lord was  it February????  I came up with a version that was tasty, looked great, but was just a little too sweet from the caramelized onions.  

This was followed by a month of ponderous introspection, depleted motivation and significant self doubt.  About many things not just pasta.  Good sense returned though, as it typically does, and I decided to give myself the benefit of the doubt, strap on Big Mary's apron and post this pasta ASAP.  After all, it's not my job to decide whether I'm worth reading.  I just need to get the damn words on the page, er screen, er... whatever.  Note to reader, this is NOT a shameless plea for praise.  Though patronage in the Renaissance manner might lift anyone's mood!

Which brings us to March 30 and the sprouting of the earliest Spring on record.  So before it's impossible to tempt anyone with a Roasted Cauliflower recipe let me toss this really tasty dish your way.  And if indeed the thought of more roasted cauliflower is causing the edge of your lip to curl involuntarily....  I bet this would be damn tasty with Roasted Asparagus also.....

So for those curious few, what I did to address the sweetness issue was to reduce the length of time the onions are caramelized, and de-glaze with a more generous amount of dry Vermouth.  I also think it's important to use the best quality of Parmesan you can afford.  Preferably freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano.  The nutty flavor of good parm will help to balance the sweetness of the onions.  And finally, hit the finished dish with a few fresh grinds of Black Pepper.


Chef's Note: For further discussion on caramelizing onions, please see Big Mary's blog post of Feb 6, 2012.

2      XL                     Yellow Onions,, sliced thin (about 2 lbs. total)
3      Tablespoons       Olive Oil
½      Cup                  Dry White Vermouth (or Dry White Wine)
½     large head          Cauliflower, cut into small florettes
2      Tablespoons       Olive Oil
½     Cup                   Pine Nuts, toasted in oven
12     Ounces              Spaghetti
½     Cup (or to taste) Parmesan Reggiano, freshly grated
                                Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper
                                Freshly chopped parsley (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a extra large sauté pan.  Add onions and mix thoroughly.  Sauté onions over low heat, stirring often until caramelized to a golden tan.  About 15 – 18 minutes usually. Watch carefully during final 5 - 8 minutes of caramelizing.  Raise heat to medium high and de-glaze pan with vermouth or white wine.  Cook for a minute and the remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350*.   Lay pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 3 – 5 minutes.  They should be golden and aromatic.  Remove from oven and cool.
Raise oven temperature to 450*.  Toss cauliflower with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, S & P, and lay out on a baking sheet.  Don’t crowd the florettes, see picture. When oven is preheated, roast until lightly browned and cooked.  Remove from oven and set aside.

Cook spaghetti until al dente.  As spaghetti is cooking, return onions in their pan to low heat.  Add cauliflower.  When spaghetti is 1 minute from being ready, drain (reserving some cooking water) and add to onion cauliflower mix.  Raise heat, add about 1/3 cup of the cooking water and mix pasta together. Adjust seasonings, add toasted pine nuts and Parmesan, and toss again.

Serve garnished with parmesan cheese, freshly ground black pepper and parsley.

© Big Mary’s Kitchen 2011

Monday, February 06, 2012

Caramelized Onion & Ricotta, Black Peppercorn Dip

I've always preached the gospel that ingredient is King.  And I do believe that purveying the best you can find; be it a perfectly ripe pear, San Marzano canned tomatoes, fresh herbs from your windowsill or a well marbled steak, is the best investment toward successful cooking you can make.  But here's an instance when a well done technique can make kitchen alchemy.

I love it best when something amazingly simple can have such a profound effect.  And there's absolutely nothing complicated or difficult about caramelizing onions.  Nothing difficult that is unless patience is not among your virtues.  Because caramelizing onions could be the poster child for the slow food movement.  The upside to the low and slow style of caramelizing onions is that they require an equally low level of attention as they are doing their thing.  So the cook can go on with other business as they are doing their thing on a back burner.  And the rewards for your patience are as deep and wide as the possible uses for this "kitchen gold".

There are plenty of foodies out there espousing the various gustatory benefits of any number of flavor enhancers.  We've all correctly learned that "salt is a flavor magnet", and that a squeeze of fresh citrus can "wake up" everything from vinaigrettes to grilled pork.  But some ingredient enthusiasm can be overwhelming. Last year's "Bacon Makes It Better" overkill was responsible for re-imagining everything from peanut brittle to tofu into cholesterol bombs.  And of course there's one celebrity kitchen diva currently battling back from her butter-centric behavior. For the record ... that bacon brittle is addictively delicious and my fridge is never butter free either Ms. Dean.... BUT I can offer caramelized onions as a remarkable flavor booster that remains pretty much cringe free.

And to prove my case I plan on bringing you several posts featuring some of Big Mary's favorite uses for Caramelized Onions.  Today's being a spectacularly delicious and simple spread or dip for crostini or pita toasts.  Fresh Ricotta with Caramelized Onions and Black Pepper.  But 1st a quick "How To" for making Caramelized Onions.

Caramelized Onions
1 1/4 pounds Yellow, White or Sweet Onions (approximately 4 cups when sliced)
2 Tablespoons Olive or Vegetable Oil
1 pinch of salt
1 glass of Chardonnay (optional) 
2 Tablespoons Water

Clean and peel onions.  Slice onions in half from top to root end.  Slice thinly. (I prefer to slice them into half rings.)
Heat a large skillet, at least 10 - 12 inches diameter, over medium high heat. When heated add oil - (Measure It!.  You'll always overestimate what a Tablespoon is...) Then add sliced onions and mix well in the skillet.  Keep sauteing the onions and stirring them for a few minutes.  Add salt. When onions have collapsed and begun to turn translucent, lower heat to medium-low and pour yourself the glass of the Chardonnay if using.  Now relax!  Enjoy the wine and come back to give the onions a stir from time to time, every 3 or 4 minutes. 
I can't say for sure how long it will take as it depends on water content of your onions, how high your flame is and how efficient of a pan you are using.  But let's say a minimum of 20 minutes and perhaps as much as 30.
At first you'll notice the onions turning a little golden here and there,  then they will all take on a blond hue, then light brown, then tan and finally deep brown.  And with each step the volume will shrink and shrink.  One recipe I consulted advised to caramelize the onions until they are as brown as you think they should be, then give them 5 minutes more.  Probably good advice for the beginning onionista!  That said, for some recipes you won't need to take them as far as I'm telling you to here.
When the onions are deep brown, raise heat and stir in a tablespoon or two of water and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze the fond (brown sticky stuff on the bottom of the pan) which has great flavor and then turn off heat once water has evaporated. Remove from pan, cool and cherish.  You should have about 1/2 cup of finished product.  Again this will vary based on the onions you begin with.

And now, here's the first of my suggested uses for you caramelized onions...

Fresh Ricotta with Caramelized Onions and Cracked Black Pepper

2 Cups  Full Fat Ricotta (best quality you can find or make your own!)
1/2 cup Caramelized Onions, roughly chopped
1 very generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil - the best you have
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon roughly cracked fresh black pepper (or more to taste)
2 teaspoons parsley chopped
Country bread sliced and toasted with Olive Oil

Combine Ricotta, onions, nutmeg, EV Olive oil, salt and pepper.  Place in a bowl and garnish with parsley if desired.  Serve with crostini or pita toasts.

Copyright © 2012 Big Mary's Kitchen
Text by Edward Magel
Photos by Edward Magel & Yder Laya