30 January 2015: Simplicity in the Cold Season
A few days ago, I reflected on how the simple act of peeling and eating a perfectly ripe Clementine orange recalled the fact that the principles of good cooking and satisfying eating are founded less on creativity than on the virtues of balance, simplicity, and restraint.
That wasn’t to suggest that there’s no room for creativity in the kitchen; however, contrary to the notion that abandon is creativity’s best friend, it’s all too often the thing that actually leads it astray. Yet when the principles of sound cooking are mastered, respected, and kept under the good management of common sense, a cook will always have more freedom rather than less, and is far less likely to create what Marcella Hazan so succinctly called “culinary vandalism.”
We do well to be reminded of this in cold weather, when our palates are craving heartier, richer fare. Creating something hearty doesn’t mean we should bury its flavor: the innate flavors and properties of the food, the principles and sensibilities of the technique, and the context of the cuisine should always be kept in the forefront of the cook’s imagination.
All this was on my mind as it contemplated what to make for lunch with a bundle of broccoli, a handful of scallions, and a half-box of penne.
Here in the South, fresh broccoli is one of the great comforts of wintertime. We can get it year round, and though it’s at its best in the spring and fall, it’s especially welcome in the winter, when other fresh green vegetables are often scarce.
Southerners love to slow-braise winter greens, and since broccoli is in the same family, it’s a great candidate for that cooking method. However, unlike the winter greens we usually braise, this one cooks quickly, and its bright flavor can become murky and dull when overcooked or buried under a lot of other things, so the braising was kept brief, and the other ingredients, minimal.
Because it was used as a sauce for penne, a tubular factory pasta made with hard wheat flour, the context of Italian pasta cookery provided sensible boundaries.
The result was neither Southern nor Italian, but wholly both at once, tasting both new and old as time. And best of all, the broccoli and scallions satisfied that winter craving for heartiness without surrendering their fresh promise that spring will be coming again.
Penne with Broccoli and Scallions
1 medium head (single stalk, about 8 ounces) fresh broccoli
2-3 medium scallions
6 ounces penne pasta
About 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
Whole black pepper in a mill
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
About 2 generous tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
1. Put 4 quarts of water in a 6-8 quart pot and bring it to a boil over medium high heat. Meanwhile, wash the broccoli well under cold running water and trim the base of the stem. If there are any fresh leaves attached, pull them off but reserve them to use. Peel away the tough skin of the stem and cut the florets from it. Cut or break these into bite-sized pieces, then cut the stem into short, bite-sized sticks. Wash, drain, and trim the scallions. Thinly slice them on the diagonal, separating the white and green parts.
2. When the water is boiling rapidly, add a small handful of salt and stir in the pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (from 8-12 minutes, depending on the pasta). Meanwhile, drizzle a sauté pan with olive oil, add the garlic, and warm it over medium high heat. When the garlic is sizzling and fragrant but not colored, add the broccoli and toss to coat it with oil. Sauté, tossing often, until the broccoli is bright green and the garlic is the palest gold, about 2 minutes or less.
3. Add the white part of the scallions, the broccoli leaves (if any), toss well, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Add a splash of water, cover, and lower the heat to medium. Braise until the broccoli is crisp-tender, adding more water if the pan gets too dry, about 3-4 minutes longer. Turn off the heat, uncover, and season with a liberal grinding of pepper. Toss and taste, adjusting the salt and pepper while keeping in mind that the cheese will add a salty element.
4. When the pasta is ready, drain it, reserving about a quarter-cup of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the pan with the broccoli along with the reserved scallion greens and butter. Toss rapidly until the butter is melted and coating the pasta, adding a splash of the reserved cooking water if it isn’t creamy enough. Add the grated cheese and toss, again adding a spoonful or so of reserved cooking liquid if it isn’t creamy enough. Divide it among warm serving bowls and serve immediately, passing more cheese separately.
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30 January 2015: Simplicity in the Cold Season