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When the Cupboard is Bare

I love the challenge of making a decent meal when there’s almost nothing in the cupboard and fridge. I was put to the test last night. I’ve been cooking like crazy lately, testing recipes for my fall 2009 book, 1,000 Vegan Recipes, and buying only the groceries I needed for each batch of testing. The previous day, I had tested the final recipe I had shopped for and just didn’t feel like going grocery shopping for another round. After spending the day at my computer yesterday, I was oblivious to the fact that the refrigerator and pantry were nearly empty. Then suddenly it was time for dinner. Fortunately, some lonely brown rice and canned beans were among the few remaining items in the pantry — a good start. But what about vegetables?

Even when I have a full larder, I often look to vegetables to inspire a meal, but the only vegetable I had in the house was a bag of frozen baby Brussels sprouts. I usually like to roast Brussels sprouts in a hot oven and spritz them with lemon juice. But for this meal, I decided to cook the tiny orbs the way I would broccoli rabe or escarole. After a quick blanching, I sliced them and sautéed them in garlic and olive oil until tender, sprinkled with basil, oregano, salt and pepper, and hot red pepper flakes. I then added capers, black olives, and cannellini beans and sautéed everything until hot. Served on a bed of brown rice, it turned out to be a satisfying and flavorful meal. Of course, now the cupboard REALLY is bare!

I’m a Sucker for Hand-Stamped Ligurian Pasta

I’ve always been fascinated by the amazing variety of pasta shapes, and even moreso by the evocative names the Italians give them. From radiatore (little radiators) to farfalle (butterflies), to stracciapretti (priest stranglers), the various shapes give each pasta variety its own unique flavor and texture. Much in the way a wine connoisseur samples vintages to experience subtle nuances, I can’t resist sampling different pastas whenever they cross my path. So, when I spied a bag of the rare hand-stamped Ligurian Croxetti pasta on the shelf of a chi-chi Italian import shop, I had to buy it, even though the price tag gave me an acute case of sticker shock. Since this unusual coin-shaped pasta is traditionally found on the Italian Riviera, I figured I saved a bundle on airfare alone.

Croxetti are made using traditional wooden stamps to press an image into the pasta. The name “croxetti” comes from the fact that the original discs were stamped with a cross. The pasta I bought was stamped with a variety of images including a sheaf of wheat, a mortar and pestle, a flower, and the sun. These pasta medallions are adorable. Typically, croxetti are served with a pesto sauce, and, although my current basil patch isn’t yet ready for prime-time, I was fortunate to have one remaining container of frozen pesto from last year’s harvest.

I was surprised that the croxetti seemed to take forever to cook. There were two conflicting cooking times printed on the package label. In one place it said 15 to 18 minutes and in another, 8 to 10 minutes. Turns out neither were correct as it was closer to 30 minutes before the discs were cooked to tender yet chewy perfection.

I decided to add some a can of creamy cannellini beans (well rinsed and drained) to the pesto and pasta, and it proved to be a perfect choice. Served with a side of sautéed spinach, fresh picked from my garden, the dinner was transporting. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself in Liguria. Almost.