Summer Veggie Pasta

Summer Pasta

I went to visit my parents last weekend and came home with a bundle of typical summer veggies from their home garden: zucchini, tomatoes, green beans. This is what I’ve learned about growing zucchini: once it starts producing, you have zucchini to pick nearly every day, and you best pick them when they are medium sized, because if you wait until the next day they’ll be huge. Oh, and huge zucchini are not necessarily better – they are seedy and pithy at the core and better suited to make zucchini boats.

Zucchini wasn’t one of my favorite vegetables growing up – it always seemed to be overcooked and mushy. Unless it was fried. But then everything fried is delicious. Evil and delicious. Eventually I discovered more toothsome preparations for zuchhini, and was finally able to pay attention to it’s flavor. It’s incredible, fresh flavor.

One such preparation was Michael Ruhlman’s Sauteed Zucchini. It makes a fabulous side dish during the summer, when you want something fresh to accompany grilled meats. In fact, it’s so delicious, I wanted it to be a meal all on it’s own, and that’s what we get when we add in the spaghetti. My only complaint was that the minced shallot didn’t swirl up with the rest of the noodles, and were always left at the bottom of my bowl. So I found a way to make onion noodles too.

Summer Pasta
Summer Vegetable Pasta with Zucchini Noodles

Summer Veggie Pasta

Serves 4

Larger zucchini and yellow squash have a lot more seeds at their core, and those seeds will lead to breaks in your squash noodles. Opt for smaller squash, or discard the center seed-filled portions. The veggies don’t take long to cook, so don’t start them until you put your pasta into it’s hot tub. Only boil the pasta as long as the package suggests, and if they are finished before the veggies, drain it and toss with olive oil to keep from sticking (never rinse your pasta).

Ingredients

  • ½ lb. spaghetti or thin spaghetti
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large carrot
  • ½ red bell pepper
  • 1 lb. zucchini and/or yellow squash (approximately 2 medium)
  • 1 small (or ½ large) red onion
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4-5 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • kosher salt to taste
  • 3 tbsp. good olive oil or butter
  • optional: serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Summer Pasta Prep Work

  1. Start your salted pasta water for the spaghetti.
  2. Use a mandoline to julienne the carrot and squash (discard the seedy core). Slice the bell pepper in long thin strips either manually or with the mandoline. Cut halfway through the onion lengthwise, then slice thinly with the mandoline to create ribbons of onion.
  3. When your pasta water is boiling, add the pasta.
  4. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat with 2 tbsp. olive oil and the minced garlic.
  5. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the carrot, bell pepper, onion and a pinch of salt. Saute until the carrot begins to soften (about 4 minutes) and add the zucchini and cherry tomatoes. Saute 2 minutes more, then add the pasta, drizzle with good olive oil or butter and toss to combine. Season with salt to taste.

Serving Suggestions

This pasta works as either a side or main dish, and shines alongside grilled meats.

Carnitas

Carnitas

We used to live just ten minutes away from Disneyland. I could even see the fireworks if I stood in the street outside my house. It was my grandparents’ house, and had been since my mom was a young girl. A couple of my aunts and an uncle worked at Disneyland when I was young, which meant I grew up familiar with the park. In college my sister was a cast member, and I was always ready to be her Disney-date. Ten years ago I started dating a fellow Disney-phile (to whom I am now married) and we became annual passholders. I love being there, just a few hours or all day, whether we go on rides or not; it never gets old.

But nearly three years ago we moved to West LA, and eventually let our passes expire this last November. I’d been pining for another visit ever since, and when the opportunity came up last weekend, I jumped at it. It wasn’t just Disneyland I was excited about – it was a visit to the old neighborhood. Planning where to visit for lunch became just as important as deciding which rides we should take the boy on. You see, the food on the Westside is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I have yet to find an adequate replacement for a few of our old haunts. Specifically: the taquerias.

I thought that moving to LA meant we would be near a lot of great Mexican food, but it turns out there isn’t much on the Westside – you have to travel east or south, and the traffic makes it somewhat prohibitive to stray more than a mile or two. We have incredible burger joints and more Asian and Italian places than I can count within walking distance, but I have yet to find a taqueria I like here. (If you are familiar with the Westside and know a killer taqueria – or any other dynamite restaurant – PLEASE tell me about it in a comment!)

We settled on Taqueria de Anda, which is a few blocks from Disneyland, and I practically dove into my carnitas tacos. Oh how I missed good carnitas! Simple and straightforward – just meat, onion/cilantro, salsa verde, and a squeeze of lime. That juicy, mildly spicy, meaty taco was heaven… and then I remembered how long it’s been since I made carnitas tacos of my own. I decided immediately they would be on the meal plan this week (yes, I’m crazy, and put together actual meal plans most weeks).

Taqueria de Anda Carnitas Taco
Taqueria de Anda Carnitas Taco

Traditional carnitas is pork braised or simmered in lard until tender, and then fried so the edges get crispy. Now, I love fat as much as any flavor-freak, but I also still have a few pounds of baby weight I would prefer eliminate, so I make it a little differently. Conventionally raised pork is really fatty, so you can separate out quite a bit without negatively impacting flavor too much.

Leftovers

You can make just about any Mexican-style dish out of this: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, even tamales. Don’t toss out the reserved cooking liquid – just store it in with the meat, so it doesn’t dry out when you re-heat it.

Carnitas Tacos

Carnitas

Adapted from the pork my mother made for her enchilada casserole, and some personal experimentation
Serves 6-8
This carnitas is rich, and pairs best with lighter foods and bright, acidic foods that cut through or offset the fattiness. For tacos, consider serving with warm corn tortillas, an onion/cilantro mixture, and lime wedges. Your preferred crispyness and shred-level may be different depending on how you want to use your carnitas. Maybe you want it crispy for use in tacos (steps 10-12 are my methods for crispy carnitas); maybe you want it softer for use in enchiladas or a casserole (in which case – skip those steps).

Ingredients

  • coarse/kosher salt & fresh ground pepper
  • lard or leftover rendered pork fat (alternates: Canola oil, vegetable oil)
  • 2 tbsp. dried whole leaf Mexican oregano
  • optional: 1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (from a can), more for a spicier and smokier flavor
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 4-6 dried red chilies, including the seeds (New Mexico or something similar), each torn into 2 or 3 pieces, OR 4-6 tsp. dried New Mexico chili powder
  • 1 (4 oz.) can diced green chilies (mild, kid-friendly) or jalapeños (spicier) OR 4-6 whole fresh jalapeños, halved lengthwise
  • 4 to 5 lb. bone-in (or bone-out, but bone-in will be juicier) pork butt roast OR country style pork ribs (which are essentially pork butt cut into strips)
  • 1 large yellow or brown onion, quartered lengthwise through the core, then each quarter halved, again through the core)
  • optional: juice of 1 orange

Directions

  1. Rub the entire pork butt with salt and pepper.
  2. Add half the oregano, onion, garlic, dried red chilies (or powder) and fresh jalapeños (if using) to the bottom of the crock pot.
  3. In a large (preferably cast iron) pan or Dutch oven, heat ¼ inch fat or oil until it shimmers. Brown the pork on all sides, then transfer to crock pot.
  4. Nestle the remaining onion, garlic dried red chilies (or powder) and jalapeños, as well as the chipotle peppers (if using) around the edges and on top of the pork. Sprinkle with the remaining oregano.
  5. Pour the canned green chilies or jalapeños, including the liquid, over the top.
  6. Cover and cook on Low for 8 hours.
  7. Remove pork from the crock pot, and strain all the chunky stuff out of the remaining liquid; toss the chunks and set aside the liquid. Allow the liquid to settle and separate from the fat. Reserve liquid and fat separately.
  8. Shred the pork with two forks (should just fall right apart), separate and toss out the solid bits of fat.
  9. Mix shredded pork with ½ to 1 cup of reserved liquid to distribute the flavor throughout the meat.
  10. Toss the shredded pork with 1-2 tbsp. of the liquid fat.
  11. Line a half sheet or jelly roll pan (rimmed cookie sheet) with foil, spread the shredded pork evenly on the pan.
  12. Broil the pork on high for 5-7 minutes until crispy.

Serving Suggestions

Starchy Sides: Warm Corn or Flour Tortillas (heat over an open flame or on a cast iron surface), Mexican-Style Rice

Veggie Sides: Mexican Caesar Salad, Guacamole Salad, Mexican-Style Vegetables (drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and microwave until tender and hot: 3 minutes, stir, 3 minutes, stir, 2 minutes)

Chicken Tacos

My step-daughter is at times a picky eater. She’s much better now than when we first met (she was 6), when mealtimes sometimes involved sitting at the table long after everyone had finished, bargaining with her to finish just a small amount of whatever we were eating that night. “Eat these four bites of chicken and you can have ice cream with the rest of us.” “I don’t need ice cream.” Hmm…. Bargaining works much better when you have something on them. She wasn’t fazed by dangling-carrots. But there were two family meals that never involved a battle of wills: spaghetti and tacos.
chicken tacos

While she now, at 16, makes an active effort to eat what we’re eating for dinner (and will occasionally be adventurous and try something crazy, like beet juice or salmon sashimi), tacos are definitely still one of her favorite foods. A normally sparse eater, she will devour between three and five tacos on her own. Sometimes six.

I can’t blame her. I have a hard time controlling myself too. Tacos are one of those comfort foods that take me back to dinners around the family table of my youth, the way Remy’s Ratatouille transports Anton Ego. Everyone is happy because they get tacos the way they like them, whether that’s with just meat and cheese, or so packed with toppings they are spilling out in every direction.

These are flavorful but mild tacos, so they are very kid-friendly. If it’s just me and my husband I’m more likely to use jalapeños instead of green chilies to kick it up a notch. My favorite toppings are jack cheese, shredded iceberg, diced avocado, and a medium salsa fresca. What are yours?

Leftovers

Mix the leftover chicken, rice, and beans (and the Mexican-Style Vegetables too!) together for a perfect lunch dish, or pile them all together for a nice taco salad.

chicken taco leftovers medley

Chicken Tacos

Serves 3-4, with leftovers

If you are pressed for time, you could certainly try to fry the tortillas while you are preparing the filling. However, I find that the flavor is better if the meat has a little time to meld with the other flavors, and I’m more likely to over-fry the tortillas if I don’t pay strict attention to that task.

Note: Be careful not to fry your tortillas too long. They shouldn’t be like chips; they should have a crispness but still be pliant enough to fold around their fillings. I like to look for when the tortilla just starts to show signs of browning in spots. And remember, it will firm up a bit on the cooling rack as well. If you over-fry, break them in half and assemble a tostada instead of a taco; or just eat them like chips.

frying taco shells

Ingredients

  • 1-2 tbsp. rendered chicken fat or olive oil
  • ⅓ medium yellow or brown onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ a (4 oz.) can of diced green chilies (mild) or jalapeños (spicier)
  • 3-4 cups leftover chicken, diced or shredded (from your Crispy Roast Chicken)
  • 2-3 tbsp. chicken stock
  • kosher salt
  • Taco fixings: shredded iceberg, grated jack cheese, salsa fresca, diced avocado, sour cream
  • lard (alternate: vegetable or Canola oil)
  • 12 corn tortillas

Directions

  1. In a large pan or skillet, heat the fat or oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
  2. Add the onion and saute until translucent. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.
  3. Add the chiles, diced chicken, and a good pinch of salt and cook until warm through.
  4. Season to taste with salt. Reduce heat to low to keep warm while you fry the tortillas.
  5. In a large (preferably cast iron) skillet, heat ¼ inch of lard or oil over medium-high heat.
  6. When oil is shimmering, test by dipping the edge of a tortilla into the oil – if it begins to sizzle, lower the remainder of the tortilla into the oil; if it doesn’t sizzle, remove and wait a minute or two more before testing again.
  7. Fry the tortilla for one minute to soften, then flip the tortilla over and fold in half; fry 1-2 minutes, flip to the other side of the folded tortilla, and fry 1-2 minutes more to desired crispness. (In a 12 inch skillet, you should be able to work on three tortillas at a time – one in each stage: flat, folded first side, and folded second side.
  8. Move to a cooling rack or a half sheet pan lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt if desired.

Serving Suggestions

Starchy Sides: Mexican-Style Rice & Spicy Beans

Veggie Sides: Mexican-Style Vegetables (drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and microwave until tender and hot – 3 minutes, stir, 3 minutes, stir, 2 minutes), Mexican Caesar Salad

Crispy Roast Chicken

Roast Chicken Leg Quarter
In high school, I once watched my friend’s mother carefully remove every tiny bit of residual skin from an already skinless chicken breast. I didn’t really know how to process what I was watching – why would you do that? I foresaw only dry, bland, mediocrity.Hands down, my favorite thing about roasted chicken, is crispy, salty, delicious skin. I blame my mother. Each year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, she always pointed out that the skin was really lovely… really crispy. We relished it, and fought over it a little. But we really only roasted turkeys at Thanksgiving and sometimes Christmas, and I’m not willing to wait around all year for that crunch, and crispy chicken skin can be just as delicious as that of turkey.
roast chicken on a platter

And truthfully, even if you don’t love that unctuous crunch as I do, the skin does more than provide a burst of flavor and texture – it holds in all that moisture, leaving you with juicy chicken. For me, chicken falls into two categories: dry (bad) and moist (good). One way to ensure delicious, juicy chicken is to cook it bone-in and skin-on, ideally in as whole a piece as possible, and be sure to let it rest 15 minutes before you begin carving.

Roasting a whole chicken is best for moisture, but it means that not all the skin attains that delicate golden crunch I crave. For that, you need as much of the skin to be face up as possible – the answer is to roast chickens in halves (or spatchcocked).

We eat this roast chicken at least once a week – it’s easy, tasty, and provides leftovers for use in tacos, pot pies, casseroles, or other meals, as well as everything I need to make stock and render chicken fat (which I promise, is amazing and not as scary as it sounds)!

Carving

Use tongs or a meat fork with your non-dominant hand to manipulate the hot chicken while you cut with your dominant hand. It will take some practice to carve successfully without mutilating that delicious skin, but people will soon wonder at your carving skills. Half chickens are a great place to start, because they are a little more steady on the carving board than a whole chicken.

Remember: you will have difficulty cutting through bone, but you should be able to separate and cut through at the joints. There are a lot of great free videos online, like this one, that will show you how it’s done.

  1. Fold the wing back until the joint connecting to the body separates. Cut through this now open joint to separate the wing from the body.
  2. Lift the leg quarter away from the body and use the knife to cut the skin and allow the quarter to be folded back, disconnecting the joint where the thigh meets the body. Cut through this now open joint.
  3. If you wish to serve legs and thigh rather than quarters, cut through the joint where these two meet.
  4. Slice along the rib cage to separate the breast from the body. Don’t worry about getting every bit of meat off the rib cage – if you are making stock with the carcasses you’re going to want a little meat on there.

roast chicken on a plate with baked  Japanese sweet potato and grilled cauliflower

Leftovers

Usually, if you budget one ½ chicken per person, you’ll have enough leftover meat to work with for another meal, as well as the carcass of two chickens, and a pan full of juices, oil, and crusty bits of flavor. We can use every bit.

Use your fingers to remove all the meat from the leftover legs, thighs, and breasts, and store in a zip top bag or your preferred storage container. Everything else will go into making your stock: the leftover leg and thigh bones, the rib cages and backs leftover after carving, all the leftover skin, and the juices, fat, and crusty bits in the pan. If you are not ready to make stock right away, or have an extra large soup/stock pot and want to wait until you have another batch of stock fixings, put all of this into a gallon-sized zip top bag, label it, and store it in the freezer until you are ready. But definitely – make stock.

chicken tacos

Crispy Roast Chicken

Serves 3-4, with leftovers for another meal

This chicken is about as basic as it gets. You could, of course, add whatever herbs or spices you love. I generally keep it simple because I want a simple, basic stock from carcass, and because I really just don’t think it needs it. Tip: Line half sheet pan with foil so you have less scrubbing to do later.

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Arrange chicken skin side down on a half sheet pan with a rack. Drizzle or brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt (one good pinch per half chicken), pepper, and granulated garlic. Flip chicken over so the skin is facing up and repeat.
  3. Roast chicken until juices run clear (poke the thigh and look at the color of the juice: pink – not ready, clear – ready) and the skin is golden and crispy, approximately 1 hr 15 min, depending on the starting temperature of the meat.
  4. Remove from oven and let rest at least 15 minutes before carving. (Do not skip the resting period!)

Serving Suggestions

Starchy Sides: Mashed Caulitatoes, Roast Sweet Potatoes (just wrap them in foil and put them in the oven with the chicken), Garlic Bread

Veggie Sides: “Grilled” Brussels Sprouts or Cauliflower, Candied Carrots, California Blend Vegetables