Monthly Archives: February 2012

Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs, and Bleu Cheese–The Food Matters Project

This week on the Food Matters Project was an interesting one for me.  Baked pasta (yum!)…brussel sprouts (yum!)…figs (?) and bleu cheese (meh).  I love pasta.  I love brussel sprouts (especially roasted or sauteed with a bit of proscuitto).  I like figs quite a bit, especially as a fig jam with manchego cheese and crackers.  But in a pasta?  And I have a love/hate relationship with bleu cheese.  Sometimes a wedge salad with bleu cheese sounds and tastes wonderful but other times bleu cheese can taste to me like it came from the bottom of a barn floor.  Yech.

Well, I am committed to this project no matter where it leads me so I thought I would give it a go.  I wanted to stick to the main ingredients (pasta, brussel sprouts, figs, and bleu cheese) so I could respect the dish and give it a shot.  But I couldn’t seem to stop myself from adding some caramelized red onion–just felt right.

The resulting dish was surprisingly good.  I’ll be honest–I could take or leave the figs.  They added an interesting texture and crunch but I would forgo buying them just for this dish.  I would suggest subbing caramelized onion and some flecks of proscuitto for flavor and crunch in lieu of the figs.  But really, it was good and comfort-foody and perfect for a cold February night in Michigan.

One thing to note is that if you reheat the dish, it loses some creaminess and color.  I reheated it later in the day in the oven and it was a little sad compared to it’s creamy gorgeousness earlier in the day.  So plan on eating it up, at least if you want what’s on your plate to be pretty!

Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs, and Blue Cheese

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes

Many cheesy baked pastas depend on béchamel—the classic sauce made with flour, butter, and milk—for creaminess. But this is a very cool alternative that combines a variety of textures and flavors (including fruit) without diluting the taste of the cheese. Pears, apples, and cranberries would all be fine here, and if you’re not keen on blue cheese, try fontina, Gruyère, or anything that melts easily.

  1. 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan
  2. Salt
  3. 8 ounces rigatoni, preferably whole wheat
  4. 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, roughly chopped
  5. 4 ounces Gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled
  6. 6 to 8 fresh figs, or 1 cup dried, chopped
  7. Black pepper
  8. 1/4 cup chopped almonds, for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 9 × 13-inch baking pan with a little olive oil. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the pasta and cook it halfway through (start checking after 3 minutes; it should still be quite firm inside). Add the Brussels sprouts to the pot and cook, until the pasta and vegetables are just barely tender, another 3 minutes. Drain, reserving some of the cooking water, and return the pasta and Brussels sprouts to the pot.

2. Stir in the blue cheese, figs, the 2 tablespoons oil, and a splash of the cooking water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss, and taste and adjust the seasoning. Turn the pasta mixture into the prepared pan.

3. Bake, checking once or twice and adding a bit more of the cooking water if the pasta looks too dry, until the mixture is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes. Garnish with chopped almonds and serve.

Seasoned Popcorn–The Food Matters Project

I just joined the Food Matters Project (, a collective of bloggers who are committing to make a recipe from Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook every Monday.  Sarah and Kate, co-creators of the project blog, explain the mission:  “We hope to inspire, educate, and encourage as we cook our way through Mark Bittman’s book together. From vegans to pescetarians to those who love indulging in the semi-occasional (or frequent!) burger and fries, everyone is welcome to join!”

I am very excited to be taking part in the project because I truly believe that you are what you eat and I am excited to be participating in healthy, whole cooking with like-minded individuals.  Although I will need to miss a Monday or two, look forward to many Monday posts from me over the next year!

This week, the recipe was seasoned popcorn.  I was really excited about it in part because I am very pressed for time this week but I was also excited about it because of my love for popcorn.  For those of you who know me, you probably know that I LOVE POPCORN.  If you don’t know that, it is because I usually eat it by myself late at night from a gigantic wooden bowl aptly named “the popcorn bowl” and used for just that purpose and only that purpose.  I have a long history of popcorn love.

Flashback:  I was five when my mom met my future (and former) stepdad.  Mike loved popcorn at a level I have never seen before.  One of my favorite memories of Mike is waiting for storms.  When a storm was coming in, we would make a big bowl of popcorn and sit outside eating it and waiting until the first sprinkles came and the lightning appeared (and subsequently mom would start to fret).  We had a large wooden bowl we dubbed the popcorn bowl.  When us kids took over that bowl, my mom bought him a bowl that said “Dad’s Popcorn” on the bottom and that became his special bowl.  The wooden bowl was always better though, because you could take the popcorn at the bottom and push it into all of the goodness at the bottom.  And there was a lot of goodness!  Let me explain.  Popcorn in my family wasn’t just a snack.  It was dinner sometimes.  To take a bowl of popcorn and transform it into dinner, my mom would add melted butter, shredded cheese, finely diced onions and copious amounts of nutritional yeast flakes.  The nutritional yeast flakes have an umami flavor–of course I didn’t know that at the time, all I knew was that I loved it!  It was one of the foods my mom incorporated into our vegetarian diet so we had enough B vitamins (another way was nutritional yeast “gravy”, still served up at home at holidays. I still have my mom mail nutritional yeast to me a couple of times a year so I never run out.

Alright, onto the recipe…I made two types of popcorn.  One was my classic nutritional yeast, olive oil, and finely diced onion.  This is my “usual” popcorn although if I am with someone I usually keep the onion off.  I also made a version with roasted garlic olive oil, parmesan, and chopped fresh parsley.  Both were delicious…and ended up becoming my lunch.

Some of the nutritional yeast and onions fall to the bottom of the bowl so when you get to the bottom, there is a lot of goodness!

The other popcorn was also delicious and different–definitely something I will try again.  I lightly browned diced garlic in olive oil, poured it onto the popcorn, and added parmesan, salt, and parsley.  I left the crispy bits of garlic in the oil and it made for some tasty eating.

I typically use an airpopper to make my popcorn but Mark Bittman’s recipes call for stove-top popping so I did it that way because it is a fun way to make popcorn and the olive oil coats the kernels nicely.  Bittman also writes that you can microwave popcorn without settling for the store bought microwave popcorn.  Take a brown paper bag, add a few tablespoons of popcorn kernels, crimp the top, and pop it in the microwave until the kernels slow down with their popping.  Mark Bittman is so cool.  See below for his recipe and suggestions on seasoning.

Seasoned Popcorn

Makes: 4 to 8 servings

Time: About 10 minutes

Real hot popcorn is one of nature’s ultimate convenience foods. I can’t say this strongly enough: There’s no reason to use microwavable packages, no matter how “natural” they claim to be. Any popcorn can be microwaved, as you’ll see below.

Toss the popcorn with extra ingredients while it’s still warm and the seasonings will stick pretty well, even without adding any more fat. You can even cook popcorn in olive oil as long as you lower the heat as needed to keep it from burning; the flavor is delicious.

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1⁄2 cup popping corn
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons butter or olive oil, optional
  • Salt (and other seasonings from the list that follows if you like)

1. Put the vegetable oil in a large, deep pan (6 quarts or so). Turn the heat to medium, add 3 kernels of corn, and cover.

2. When the kernels pop, remove the lid and add the remaining corn. Cover and shake the pot, holding the lid on. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the popping sound stops after about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the butter or gently warm the olive oil if you’re using it.

3. Turn the popcorn into a large bowl; drizzle with butter or olive oil if you like, and sprinkle with salt while tossing the popcorn. Serve immediately.

Microwave Popcorn (Makes 2 to 4 servings). In a small glass container, or a brown paper lunch bag, combine 1⁄4 cup popping corn with 1⁄4 teaspoon salt and fold the top of the bag over a couple of times. Microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes, until there are 4 or 5 seconds between pops. Open the bag or container carefully, because steam will have built up. Toss with your seasonings and a drizzle of butter or olive oil or serve as is.

Garlic Popcorn. Use the optional butter or oil and as you melt or heat it, add a tablespoon minced garlic and cook until soft and turning golden. Strain the garlic bits out as you pour the butter over the popcorn—or not.

A Dozen Ways to Spike Your Popcorn

Toss any of these with just-cooked popcorn, alone or in combination. Since some are more potent than others, start with a light sprinkle and taste as you go.

  • Chopped fresh herbs
  • Black pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Curry powder, or garam or chaat masala
  • Old Bay seasoning
  • Five-spice powder
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Cayenne or red chile flakes
  • Grated Parmesan cheese
  • Brown sugar
  • Finely ground nuts or shredded, unsweetened coconut
  • Chopped dried fruit

Cuban Dinner, Vegetarian Style

There is a restaurant called Cabana Nuevo Latina in Queens, NY and in DelRay Beach, FL.  I’ve been to both and they never fail to impress me with their beautiful and delicious dishes.  In NY a few years ago I had a version of barbecue chicken that knocked my socks off but they did not feature it on the menu in FL. The Pollo Jamaiquina is a half chicken marinated in caribbean spices and hot peppers, basted with jerk barbeque sauce and grilled over an oak fire.  Amazing.

A good replacement at the DelRay location is the Coco Cabana–also amazing–they describe it as “our signature coconut milk and habanero-curry reduction with yuca, calabaza, yautia, broccoli, carrots, spinach, Peruvian purple potatoes.”

No matter what you get, the plantains, beans, and sauteed spinach are always great accompaniments.  In an effort to revisit my meals at Cabana Neuvo Latino, I made plantains, black beans, and sauteed spinach served with avocado and siracha chili sauce.  While it wasn’t the Cabana, it did the trick!

For the beans, I sauteed some diced onions and garlic with small chunks of carrot then added beans and simmered for a while.  For the plantains, I sliced them lengthwise and sauteed in a small amount (1 tsp or so) or oil for about 15 minutes, flipping once.  I think plantains taste best fried in more oil but I wanted to keep it healthy and they turned out just fine albeit a bit starchier than fried plantains.  Serve with some quick sauteed spinach, sliced avocado, and hot sauce.

Tuscan White Bean Soup with Escarole

I have been doing a some traveling lately (and eating out a lot) so I was looking forward to getting home and making a big pot of soup.  Nothing says home to me more than a pot of soup (at least in the winter).  This recipe from last month’s Cooking Light magazine had been on my counter for a while and it is one of those soups I always hear good things about so I thought I would give it a whirl.  I wasn’t sure if I would be too into this soup–I typically like soups with tomato bases or with bean bases (split pea, red lentil, etc.).  I also wasn’t crazy about the escarole idea (kind of lettuce-y) and almost bailed on it altogether, thinking of adding kale instead.  But I made the recipe to the letter and it is delicious.  Filling, creamy, savory, and so good.  Ah, it is good to be home!

  • YIELD: Serves 4 (serving size: about 2 cups soup and 1 1/2 tablespoons cheese)
  • HANDS-ON:15 Minutes
  • TOTAL:50 Minutes


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups finely chopped onion
  • 5  garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups organic vegetable broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2  (15-ounce) cans no-salt-added Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2  fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1  (1 1/2-ounce) piece Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind
  • 8 cups chopped escarole (about 1 pound)
  • 1 cup chopped carrot
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons shaved fresh Parmesan cheese


1. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion, and sauté for 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic, and sauté for 30 seconds. Add vegetable broth and the next 5 ingredients (through cheese rind); bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in escarole and carrot; cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until carrot is tender. Stir in red pepper, salt, black pepper, and vinegar. Remove and discard rind; sprinkle soup with shaved cheese.