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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Vegetable Bliss

I think it was my friend Jane's husband who pointed out that doughnuts are acceptable if one is a vegetarian, and so I cheerfully mentioned this to my dear friend, Bijou, when she told me she had become a vegetarian. We've been friends since high school and she is, and has always been, The Artsy One. Supremely talented with just about every medium I can think of, she made an incredible silk screen of Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a dance pose, our junior year, that I think we had transferred to t-shirts at one point. We were nerdy. We thought he was cool, and, err, umm (this is embarrassing)... hot.
Teenage girl silliness. What-ever...

A couple summers ago, Bijou (so nicknamed during her jewelry-making phase) decided to take a welding class, and I have a wonderful photo of her in full welder gear (steel-toe boots, overalls, gloves and those cool, gigantic helmets) with her two young boys, off to the side, looking impressed, and maybe even a little awestruck. My friend, Bijou, The Welder Goddess.

I think it was last month that she mentioned that she had become a vegetarian. This is what I love about my dear friend...always embracing something new. I told her about a recent visit to the most incredible vegetable emporium I've ever seen,
The Berkeley Bowl. Almost like an indoor farmer's market, but better, I nearly wept as I wandered the aisles. A dozen types of radish...
my beloved escarole to be had...the citrus section alone put every regular-store fruit and vegetable department to shame. I'd really never seen anything like it. It filled me with Midwestern envy. It would be SO simple to be a vegetarian here in Northern California, and even better if you lived near The Berkeley Bowl! (That's the general consensus. After the first visit to this remarkable store, one begins to plot a way to live close by.)

So, as Bijou and I discussed her new vegetarianism, I got to thinking about a couple of meatless recipes I am simply addicted to. In fact, our talk reminded me of one that had cycled through my regular rotation for years, only to drop out for no good reason.

It may sound a little '80s-pre-carb-backlash when I tell you about it, but don't hold that against this perfectly balanced, harmonious pasta dish. I was so happy I remembered the Pasta with Goat Cheese and Greens, that I went ahead and made a bowlful for my self that very same evening. Yes, all the beloved chi-chi-in-the-80's ingredients are here. Goat cheese! Sun-dried tomatoes! Arugula!
And, their delicious flavors meld together in the most beautiful way. The bonus, I have to tell you, is that it's the closest thing I know of to a true "pantry" supper. Pasta. Ha...always in our cabinets...I used orecchiette the other night, but originally made it with penne (rigate, of course), as a knock-off of a tasty pasta I had once in a beloved, Chicago restaurant where we are regulars, Mia Francesca. Caramelized onions are the base--not a problem, most of the time. Jars of sun-dried tomatoes are easy to keep in the pantry. (I favor the Trader Joe's julienned variety.) Goat cheese keeps really well in those little vacuum-sealed logs (another Trader Joe's good buy). As for the greens, I usually have a bag of pre-washed arugula in the fridge, or even spinach works well here. And, for a delightful little crunch, toasted pine nuts. Mine live, year-round, in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer.

The onions are cooked to a gorgeous state of caramel-sweet golden-ness, and then the tomatoes are added to warm up towards the end. Add the hot pasta, some crumbled goat cheese and a couple handfuls of greens (the arugula, for a bit more bite, or some fresh spinach) and watch it all melt together. (I keep a little cup of the hot pasta water to the side in case the sauce needs a little loosening up. Sometimes, I add grated Parmesan to give it a little dimension. But, really, that's it. Toss in a handful of toasted pine nuts, for a sassy bit of crunch and you're set.

A glass of red wine and the '80s music of your choice would complete the experience.

Goat Cheese, Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta with Greens
Serves 4

1 lb. pasta, penne rigate, farfalle, or orecchiette
2-3 tablespoons of sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil
1 small log of goat cheese, chevre, crumbled
2-3 small onions, sliced into half-rounds
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2-3 handfuls of arugula, or fresh spinach
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

salt and pepper to taste

2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan, optional

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for pasta. Cook pasta according to package directions.

2. In your largest saucepan, saute the sliced onions in the olive oil, over medium heat until soft and golden brown.

3. Toast the pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat. Tossing occasionally for even browning. Set them to the side for garnish.

4. When onions are ready, add sun-dried tomatoes and stir to warm. Keep over very low heat until pasta is ready.

5. As soon as pasta is cooked scoop about a cup of water out and set aside for loosening the sauce, and then add drained pasta to the pan with the onions.

(NOTE: if your saucepan is not large enough, do the reverse and use the pasta pot to combine everything after draining.)

6. Stir the past and onion-sun-dried tomato mixture together and add the crumbled goat cheese and handfuls of greens. Continue to stir while the cheese melts and the greens wilt a bit.

7. Add optional grating of Parmesan. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.

8. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve.