Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mark Bittman's Pasta with Summer Vegetables and Lavender

My partner and I like to dine vegetarian once a week. It's partly a response to rising food costs and a desire to eat less meat and reduce our impact on the environment. Having grown up in an omnivorous Seventh Day Adventist family, eating vegetarian once a week or being served a vegetarian meal on occasional weeknights was nothing new to me in concept. But because we're both so into working out, the idea of reducing our protein consumption at dinner (and post-workout for Brian) was something we were hesitant about but also willing to try.

I say we partly eat vegetarian once a week because of course even more important for me, it became an opportunity to explore cookbooks, websites, and recipes using fresh ingredients and seasonings that would have to be full-flavored if we were willing to forgo animal flesh. What's the fun of culinary explorations if new cookbooks (or cook's tools) can't be researched and eventually purchased? Incidentally my new thing is to check out cookbooks from the library before buying. In the past I'd hear or read about a new cookbook, add it to my Amazon wish list, check it out at Barnes & Noble, and if I liked it well enough after repeated perusals, I'd buy it. I do like nice pictures in my cookbooks--of the food not the author--and try to limit my library to cookbooks that I know I will use for more than just one recipe. Ina Garten, Mario Batali, and Nigella Lawson are outstanding in this regard. Amanda Hesser is the outstanding exception.

Now I go through almost the same research process except that I will borrow the object of my attention from the library, read it at home, mark off recipes, and actually cook from it a few of times before making my buy decision. For this reason, I thought I wanted to buy Dorie Greenspan's Baking: from My Home to Yours after hearing her on NPR making pie or cake or something with Michele Norris. After checking out her book and making her lemon poppy seed muffins to acclaim, I never found another recipe that I wanted to try. I have Nancy Baggett's All-American Dessert Book that pretty much covers the same territory as Dorie though Dorie is an admitted Francophile. So even though I loved hearing her on the radio (also on The Splendid Table talking about mortars and pestles) and enjoying her lemon yogurt cake, which is my all purpose cake to make in a pinch, I've concluded that Dorie won't be joining my library, as her two outstanding lemon recipes are of course available online.

Conversely, this is exactly how Veganomicon entered my collection. I'd read about the authors in my favorite Washington Post food blog, which recommended this vegan cookbook so I got it from the library along with ones I found by Deborah Madison and Peter Berley. The intro chapters in Veganomicon on equipment and pantry items were so well written that I was immediately intrigued. The chapter on appetizers was so full of great ingredients and fresh approaches that I was sold and bought it last week. I admit I have yet to make the first thing from this cookbook (breaking my own rule of the test run), but I have complete confidence that the recipes and cooking techniques will be winners.

All of this brings me to Mark Bittman's wonderful recipe of Pasta with Vegetables and Lavender that I found this past weekend. I tagged it in Delicious (could there be a better named site for tagging recipes found on the web?) and made it last night and was astounded that lavender could so well perfume and flavor a pasta dish. I love this recipe because of its unusual use of lavender (Note, I just reheated this for lunch and folks sitting near me all came over to find out what smelled so delicious!) and its use of vegetables that I always have on hand in the summer: zucchini, red pepper, and carrots. In the past I've used lavender to make an infused simple syrup, ice cream, and a vinaigrette that is beautiful on potato salad or for marinating chicken, but never with pasta. Bittman is right in warning us to go easy with this key ingredient though he annoyingly doesn't recommend specific amounts. I overdid it with the lavender on some chicken that I served to guests that was way too strong (oh well!), so I know that a light touch is necessary here, about 1 teaspoon (not heaping) of dried flowers. A lavender garnish at the end is all you need if you think the flavor is not quite enough.

As this is a pasta with vegetable dish, you can up the proportion of veggies and decrease the amount of pasta, and end up eating more of the wonderful veggies and less of the refined white flour for a lot fewer calories, which is exactly what Bittman advised in another column, even though that is not the Italian way. In fact, a red bell pepper, a zucchini, a yellow squash, the carrots, plus the lavender would give you almost all the colors of the rainbow, and it occurs to me that this combination would make a wonderful vegetable side dish without the pasta. I used yellow zucchini, green bell pepper and a carrot to great success, and am contemplating what other mild vegetables could be subsituted. Green beans maybe? Also he recommends grating the squash and pepper as well as the carrot. But I used the slicing disk on my food processor for the squash and pepper and then grated the carrot because I didn't want the squash and the pepper to make everything too watery or mushy.

Farfalle with Vegetables and Lavender
Adapted from Mark Bittman

½ pound of pasta, such as farfalle, orechiette, or gemelli
2 or 3 cloves garlic, sliced thin or crushed
2 medium zucchini or summer squash (about 1 pound), trimmed
2 medium carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 bell pepper (use whatever color you prefer), cored
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (enough to completely coat the bottom of your sauté pan)
1 teaspoon fresh or dried lavender flowers, plus additional for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (i.e. just barely tender, which is usually one minute less than the recommended cooking time.)
  2. Meanwhile, slice the vegetables thin, using a food processor, mandolin, or knife. Pour the olive oil into a large unheated skillet and add the garlic. Turn the heat to medium and gently cook the garlic until it starts to turn golden, stirring occasionally. (Cooking the garlic this way will both infuse the oil with the garlic flavor and minimize the possibility of it burning and becoming bitter.) When the garlic turns golden, add the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and add the lavender, crushing the flowers in your fingertips to release their fragrance. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies barely soften, just 5 minutes or so.
  3. Hopefully the pasta will be nearly done just as the vegetables are nearly done. (If you start cooking the garlic right after you add the pasta to the boiling water, the timing should be right.) Drain the pasta, reserving some cooking water. Add pasta to vegetables and continue to cook, adding water as necessary to keep mixture moist.
  4. Taste, and add more lavender to taste; it should be distinctive but not too strong. When pasta and vegetables are tender but not mushy, adjust seasoning for salt and pepper, garnish with a couple of lavender flowers if you have them, and serve. A nice crisp sauvignon blanc would be really nice with this dish.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.