50th Birthday

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on June 29, 2005

Trenne_069
Well, I’m back. It’s been four months since my last column on these
pages, or at least, on pages that looked like these, only bigger. Geesh, you
turn your back for a few months and look what happens. My word allotment
slashed nearly in half! For a chatty woman like me, that’s a hard cross to
bear.

So where have I been while the Herald-Times was downsizing? Under
deadline to revise my American politics textbook. Months of fascinating, but
exhausting work, far, far from the world of food.

Except for one thing. Just recently I had one of those landmark
birthdays – the kind that end with a zero and, in my case, begin with a 5. A
big milestone and a marvelous time of life. Hard to believe that it wasn’t all
that long ago that a man at 50 was sexy and distinguished while his female
counterpart was considered past her sell-by date. What a difference a little
power and equality can make.

 

I remember Gloria Steinem’s headline-making response to being
congratulated on looking good for 40. “This is what 40 looks like,”
she said. That was in 1974, the year after I graduated from high school, and
the year my college roommate cried on her 20th birthday because she was getting
old and wasn’t married.

We’ve come a long way, baby, indeed. So earlier this month, when I looked
in the mirror and said, “Ah, so this is what 50 looks like,” the face
looking back at me just smiled.

What does this have to do with food, you ask? Only that turning 50
called for a splendid feast and I exercised the prerogative of age to beg one
of the guests to help me cook it. The result was a glorious orgy of food and
friendship.

The cooking guest in question is my Slow Food buddy, Dave Tallent (whose
eponymous restaurant, by the way, recently got rave write-ups in Indianapolis
Monthly and Louisville Magazine! The place just rocks and it is well worth
fighting the construction on West Fifth Street to get there.)

Tallent is brilliant with food and watching him cook is incredible fun,
the ultimate interactive cooking show. Because he is a good guy as well as a
good cook, he agreed to give up his one night off for a busman’s holiday in my
kitchen. We decided to start with some antipasti, followed by sautéed trenne
pasta bolognese, and then seared scallops with lemon garlic potatoes and braised
baby vegetables.

Just watching Tallent put the pasta sauce together was an inspiration;
it’s so simple and so extraordinarily good. I’ve made sauce a million times,
but I can’t coax the richness, fragrance and complexity out of the ingredients
that he can. Into the frying pan went three kinds of sausages and some braised
lamb, to simmer with tomatoes and fat golden cloves of garlic confit, and meaty
chunks of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. We tossed it with the crispy, chewy
sautéed pasta (see recipe) and it was so good you could cry.

By the end of the meal we were so full we could hardly breathe, but
dessert, the gift of my friends David Fletcher and Scott Jackman from BLU
Culinary Arts, was magnificent and we made room. In talking with Fletcher about
what kind of birthday cake I wanted, I had dithered between three choices.
Leave it to me, he said, I’ll surprise you. And he did. He and Jackman showed
up with all three cakes: chocolate hazelnut, strawberry mascarpone and carrot.

As a birthday present from kind and wonderful friends, the evening was
beyond compare, a superb reminder of what I love about the world of food. I’m
glad, so very glad, to be back.

Sauteed trenne – two recipes

My husband and I had a version of this in a Los Angeles restaurant recently and came home
raving about it. The recipes here are mine; for Dave Tallent’s spectacular
interpretation you’ll have to visit his restaurant, where sauteed trenne will
be on the new summer menu starting in early July.

Trenne is a short pasta tube with three flat sides, which makes it good
for sauteing. It is available through mail order (I got mine here) or you
can use penne – not quite perfect but still delicious. Pan frying the pasta
creates an effect almost like pot stickers – those tender Chinese dumplings
with the crispy bottoms. The pasta takes on a toasty, almost grilled flavor,
and the texture is addictive – delightfully chewy and crunchy at the same time.

These two recipes make the best of what’s in the market this week – the
first light and fresh, the second earthier and more robust.

Sauteed trenne with fresh tomato sauce

1/2 pound trenne (or other short tubular pasta)

2-3 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1 small clove garlic, chopped

Good quality olive oil, to taste

Splash of wine vinegar, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt, to taste

Nicoise or other pungent black olives

Prepare the sauce first. Chop the tomatoes and put them with all their
juice into a bowl. You can skin and seed them if you want this to be fancier,
but I don’t bother. Add the basil, garlic and seasonings, and drizzle with oil
(start with just a tablespoon or so) and a touch of vinegar. You aren’t making
vinaigrette; the oil and vinegar are mostly for flavor, so taste carefully as
you go. The salt will cause the tomatoes to give up a lot of liquid, and they
will get quite soupy, forming a fresh-tasting sauce. Let it sit while you
prepare the pasta.

Cook the pasta according to package instructions in plenty of salted
water until just al dente or cooked through but firm to the tooth. Drain
thoroughly.

In a nonstick frying pan, heat 1-2 teaspoons of oil. When it’s hot, add
the pasta. Do not crowd – do this in two batches if necessary. Toss the pasta
in the oil (sprinkle with a little salt if you like) and then cook over medium
heat until the pasta is golden and crunchy on one side. If it gets dry, add a
little more oil. Place the pasta in shallow bowls and top with tomato sauce.
Garnish with olives.

Serves four as a first course.

Sauteed trenne with roasted new potatoes, Swiss chard,
garlic confit and goat feta

1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled

1 cup olive oil

1/2 pound trenne pasta

1 cup large diced (1 inch or so) new potatoes

1 bunch swiss chard, washed and chopped (keep stems separate from leaves
since they will need to cook a little longer)

Balsamic vinegar to taste

Freshly ground pepper and sea salt, to taste

3 ounces goat feta, crumbled.

Make the garlic confit ahead of time. Put the oil and the garlic into a
small saucepan over low heat. Allow to simmer gently for approximately 45
minutes, until garlic is golden but not brown. It will be soft and sweet when
it is done. Keep the leftover garlic and oil in the refrigerator. It will
solidify when cold but a few minutes on the counter will bring it back to a
liquid state.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the potatoes with some of the garlic
oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast on a baking sheet until golden and
starting to crisp.

Saute chard stems in a teaspoon or two of oil until tender. Add chopped
leaves and continue to cook. When they are tender, but still chewy, season with
salt, pepper and splash of vinegar.

Cook the pasta according to package instructions in plenty of salted
water until just al dente or cooked through but firm to the tooth. Drain
thoroughly.

In a nonstick frying pan, heat 1-2 teaspoons of oil. You can use the
garlic oil for this. When it’s hot, add the pasta. Do not crowd – do this in
two batches if necessary. Toss the pasta in the oil (sprinkle with a little
salt if you like) and then cook over medium heat until the pasta is golden and
crunchy on one side. If it gets dry, add a little more oil.

Place the pasta in a bowl and toss with the roasted potatoes, sauteed
chard, and three or four cloves of the cooked garlic, chopped. Adjust
seasonings, sprinkle with crumbed goat feta and serve.

Serves four as a
first course.

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