Best-tasting meals, in my opinion, are those that were made without a recipe. When I say ‘without a recipe’, I don’t mean those elegant and artful food arrangements created in fancy restaurants by chefs in crisp-clean uniforms, using decades of experience and skills acquired in french cooking schools. Nope. Instead, think of simple peasant meals like Italian pizza, Spanish paella, or French ratatouille where various ingredients on hand were combined to create what are now known as iconic dishes. Sometimes, necessity (to eat) and scarcity (of ingredients) produce the tastiest meals which can also be healthy and nutritious.
Here is an example of how it works. You come home hungry on a Sunday afternoon (when grocery stores are closed), open fridge to discover few leftover cured olives, a sad bunch of parsley, a tiny head of radicchio, one fresh [winter] tomato (read: flavorless), and an old piece of Parmesan that you had for ages. Does not sound promising, I know. But, if you happened to maintain a somewhat well-stocked pantry which hosts some dried pasta and pine nuts, then you’re almost rescued! With just a little bit of imagination, even a seemingly random line up of ingredients can produce guest-worthy dinner.
Although it seems ironic to provide a recipe in the post that encourages freedom of cooking expression, I am hoping that it will serve as an inspiration and provides hints on how to prepare quickly a simple meal. A word of caution to pasta lovers: I rarely use pasta (typically its my ‘backup’ ingredient when nothing else is available) so I use it sparingly. I measure out two small handfuls of pasta per person and overall maintain vegetables/pasta proportion as 2:1 or even 3:1. Think of pasta as croutons for your salad – it’s there to add texture and volume but it never dominates the plate. As far as type of pasta, I have been using whole-wheat pasta for a long time but have recently shifted to trying ink-squid, nettle, and kamut varieties.
Radicchio-Tomato-Pasta with Olives, Nuts, and Pesto
-two handfuls of small-shaped pasta (I used kamut penne)
-1 fresh tomato
-1/2 head radicchio
-small bunch of parsley
-5 black cured olives
-handful of pine nuts
-1 tbs olive oil
-1 tbs balsamic vinegar
-pinch of oregano
Heat water in a small pan until boiling, add pasta and cook according to package instructions (typically 8-10 minutes). While waiting for water to boil, toast pine nuts in the oven for 3-4 minutes (until golden). Remove and let cool. Slice tomato and separate radicchio into leaves. Arrange vegetables on a baking sheet (lined with foil), sprinkle with oregano, drizzle with balsamic, and roast for about 10 minutes at 180C/350F. While vegetables are baking, wash parsley and add to food processor or blender with half of the pine nuts and the olive oil. Pulse a few items until you get pesto consistency. You may need to add 1 tbs of water or more olive oil to get smoother consistency. Feel free to add a clove of fresh garlic, if desired. Prepare the olives by pressing them with flat side of knife to make it easier to extract pits.
Once pasta is cooked, drain water, leaving couple of tablespoons in the pot. Add pesto and mix thoroughly with pasta and leftover cooking liquid. Remove tomato and radicchio from the oven and add with all the juices to the pasta pot. Mix and serve immediately, topped with the olives, remaining pine nuts, and Parmesan shavings.