Friday, August 19, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Pasta with Walnuts and Fresh Vegetables

I offered a version of this recipe to readers about a year ago.  At that time, I described an early fall version of this dish, featuring cauliflower.  Now, I'd like to describe the same pasta dish as a quick, nourishing dish using summer vegetables when they are at their most plentiful--in particular, summer squash and its cousins including zucchini--and when cooking lengthy, complex dishes that heat up the kitchen is not appealing for most cooks or diners.

This dish of pasta with walnuts and fresh vegetables is a dish Steve and I eat throughout the summer for the reasons I mention above.  It's simple and quick to cook, nourishing, tasty, and allows us to make maximum use of summer vegetables when they are at their freshest and most abundant.  

I also thought to make this pasta dish this past week because of two studies I had happened on during the week, as I browsed the news online.  One noted that a study following the effects of daily consumption of walnuts in people with type-II diabetes had found that eating walnuts daily helps reverse the effects of diabetic vein damage, and helps to hold diabetes at bay in those who have a tendency towards it, but haven't developed it.

The other article issued a grim reminder that, despite repeated admonitions to eat up to five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, a large percentage of Americans continue to consume far more meat than we need to be healthy, and to ignore fruits and vegetables.  This concerns me because I see a growing trend in my own city to beer-and-'burger establishments which frankly accept that a generation or so of Americans for whom a hamburger and french fries has come to be thought of as a real meal want, more than anything else foodwise, new hamburger places to open in their area.  And since most of the new 'burger joints opening in our community in recent years recognize that beer and other alcoholic drinks bring in the big bucks, almost all of these places combine novelty hamburgers (and, generally, vastly over-priced ones) with lavish (and expensive) drinks.

While they simultaneously and insincerely purport to be all about local foods and eating in healthy ways . . . . "We make our own house-made bread," some of them shout.  Or, "We pickle our own pickles and make our own ketchup."

But the bottom line of these hamburger places, which my city needs like a hole in the head and which the local media can't do enough to tout, is profit: for their owners.  It's not offering healthy local food options to people starved for those options.  It's profit capitalizing on the growing brutality of our red-meat, macho culture, in which downing beer while gnawing on grilled meat and watching big-screen t.v.'s blaring sports events is now considered chic dining out.

We need alternatives.  Parents who care about raising healthy children need alternatives to this way of thinking about meals and nutrition.  People who care about their own health need alternatives.  At the risk of appearing immodest, I'd like to propose the following recipe as one viable and healthy alternative to the gross 'burger culture that is, more than any thing else, the reason for Americans' growing obesity problem, and the reason we no longer understand or do fresh fruits and vegetables in the way that generations of our ancestors did.

Here's my way of rebelling against the 'burger culture: to begin with, I keep on hand, always, a variety of pastas.  I can't imagine a larder that is well-stocked lacking several types of pasta at any given moment.  This recipe relies on items you will (should?) have on hand in your pantry at all times: pasta, walnuts, olive oil, onions, garlic, parmesan cheese, perhaps a bit of white wine, etc.

It also features items that are local and in-season.  Since one of the few reliable vegetables that has produced persistently through our long, hot, dry summer this year has been summer squash, we've been buying and eating squash weekly.  This week, I decided to do the following with the latest batch of tender young squash we bought:

I put on a pot of salted water in which I intended to cook about 8 ounces of bowtie pasta.  As the water began to simmer, I sliced and cubed about five smallish summer squash, and put them into a large frying pan with a good bit of olive oil.  To that, I added half of a large sweet white onion cut into strips and a handful of walnuts.

I quickly fried the nuts and vegetables over a medium flame until the onions had reached translucency, and then added three or four large toes of garlic, chopped, some salt and black pepper, a sprinkle of dried Italian herbs, and a splash of white wine to deglaze the pan.  As I add the wine, I also sometimes add a knob of butter, if I'm in the mood for a dish a bit richer than one made with olive oil alone.

By this time, the water for the pasta had begun to boil.  A tip to consider when you boil pasta: if you want the flavor of bay leaf in a pasta dish, but don't want the clutter of the bay leaves in the dish itself, add several bay leaves to the water in which you boil your pasta, and then remove them when you drain the pasta.  You can dry them and use them again for this purpose, several times.

As my pasta cooked, I added to the frying pan two slices of ham, cubed.  The point of the ham is not to turn the dish into a meat dish, but to season the pasta and vegetables.  We just as frequently leave it out, too, when we want an all-vegetable pasta dish.  I also added a cup or so of frozen green peas.

Granted, English peas are not a fresh, local vegetable for us in the South during the hot months of summer, when they have long since stopped producing.  We rely, instead, on the many varieties of field peas that our African heritage has bequeathed to us, for summer cooking.  

But like Jefferson (who's my mentor and the mentor of all traditional Southern cooks insofar as we feature fresh vegetables as the centerpiece of our table and use meat primarily as a condiment for the vegetables), I have a particular passion for English peas--the forbidden or inaccessible fruit that always tastes sweeter than any other, perhaps.  And so we keep frozen green peas on hand at all times, to add to various dishes including pasta dishes, curries, soups, etc.

And that's it: what I've just described is my summer meal suggestion, a quick, nutritious, vegetable-rich main dish that can be prepared quickly and with a minimum of fuss even by people just home from a long day of work.  One can ring endless changes on the combination of vegetables I use above.  For instance, if I have greens (e.g., beet greens, spinach, turnip greens, collards or kale) on hand, I might add a handful of these, shredded, to the frying pan as I fry the onion and walnuts, keeping in mind that some greens can have an overweening taste and balance is important in a dish like this.  If I've cooked dried beans earlier in the week and have some of those left from a previous meal, I may well drain them and stir them into the pasta.

Use what you have.  Experiment.  Cook what you particularly like--mushrooms in place of the squash, for instance, if that's more to your taste.  The point is to follow time-honored principles of many peasant cuisines of the world--in this case, Mediterranean ones, in particular--by combining ingredients that allow you to eat low on the food chain, like pasta, with vegetables that happen to be fresh in your area at any given moment, and nourishing, tasty staples like olive oil, garlic, onion, and wine.

Oh, of course, after your pasta has boiled to the al dente point, drain it, mix it with the fried vegetable mixture, have a bowl of freshly ground parmesan on hand, and serve and eat.  We eat this kind of pasta dish in bowls, using soup spoons, with a salad plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers (in summer) to accompany it.  And we believe we are feasting like royalty when we eat this meal--far more so than anyone wolfing down hamburgers at even the spiffiest 'burger joint to be found anywhere in the land.

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