Wild garlic mustard pesto for the heart.

The Heart of the Matter - Eating For LifeI’ve been kicking myself for not participating in The Heart of the Matter event. This blog may not show it much (I guarantee more buttercream photos before the year is out), but I generally eat a healthy diet to maintain my weight loss and keep high blood pressure in check. When you have a father who has suffered a hemorrhagic stroke due to hypertension, you are constantly reminded of how invisible health problems can destroy a life and affect a family. While heart disease and hypertension are not identical, one often comes along with the other. The same recommended diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and monounsaturated fats will help heal both. It’s with pleasure that I finally participate in The Heart of the Matter and submit my pasta dish for this month’s theme.

Wild garlic mustard pestoThe wild garlic mustard I identified last week without dying tastes like a cross between young garlic chives and baby spinach. The entire garlic mustard plant is edible, including the pungent root. Unfortunately, the roots I pulled up had a hard black center that made it difficult to cut much less clean and use. In the first year of the garlic mustard’s life, the round scalloped leaves hug the ground much like violet leaves. You can see a bit of them as garnish on the pasta. In the second year the leaves develop a notched heart shape and grow from a thigh-high central stem topped with white flowers that drop their petals on the leaves below. The withered petals can look a lot like, um, bird droppings. Calling it “flower droppings” doesn’t make it sound much better. They wash right off. Thank God. Apparently the leaves become bitter as the weather warms, so if you have seen this invasive weed growing like crazy in your area, by all means, harvest some leaves now and toss them into your next salad.

Wild garlic mustard pesto with flowerThe intriguing garlicky flavor of the leaves would lend itself well to blanching and seasoning Korean style, but with basil season a ways off yet, several online garlic mustard pesto recipes caught my fancy. Oily restaurant and store pesto makes me ill within a few bites. Homemade pesto, made with just a bit of intense extra virgin olive oil and as much herb as I’d like, makes me giddy with the taste of fresh summer. Reducing the oil also happens to reduce the fat—an added bonus. A bit of real Parmigiano-Reggiano is so flavorful that just a little goes a long way without noticeably increasing the saturated fat content. But if you’re avoiding cheese, a great substitute is that vegan standby, nutritional yeast. Available in health food stores, nutritional yeast provides many B vitamins, adds a cheesy flavor, and contains glutamate, the flavor-enhancing unami that makes Parmigiano improve anything it’s added to. To make up for the modest amount of oil, starchy pasta water thins the thick pesto into a good consistency.

Wild garlic mustard with pestleA food processor makes this quick work. I used a mortar and pestle because it makes me feel like an Italian grandma and works my biceps. When you’re one of those people who hates lifting anything other than a fork, every little bit helps. Also, a mortar and pestle are easier to wash. The resulting light herbal pesto was delicious tossed with multicolored leaf-shaped pasta. I had the leftovers with julienned yellow bell peppers sauteed in olive oil and a handful of halved raw cherry tomatoes. That was even better. Bonus: This pesto will not blacken like basil and retains its vibrant green color.


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Early Christmas gift: googly Greek Yogurt Spaghetti.

You will always find the following at your local Salvation Army thrift store:

1) A dusty Graniteware roasting pan, circa 1978, with or without matching lid.
2) Replica poultry, circa 1956.
3) Something with googly eyes, circa “No era’s not a good era for googly eyes.”

I just happened to have been unsuccessfully hunting for vintage silverware at The Salvation Army the same day that my mailman delivered a surprise gift from a friend: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris, famed cupcake baker and cheese ball maker. After finishing the surprisingly heavy book in two days, I can guarantee that you will find the following inside:

Googly Greek Yogurt Spaghetti1) Dusty Graniteware roasting pans.
2) Replica poultry in plastic and ceramic.
3) Lots of things with googly eyes.

The book is hysterically, dementedly, determinedly tacky and five times more politically incorrect than anything Anthony Bourdain has published under his real name. Rather than use food stylists, it looks as if Sedaris hunted down the original and partially deceased photography staff of vintage Jell-O cookbooks. In between her advice on gifts for gypsies (“It’s not your fault” lice comb), being a good guest (“Keep your parasites to yourself”), and children’s party games (“JR. CAT BURGLAR: Lock the children out of the house and see if they can break in”), she provides helpful advice that reveals a genuine love of food and entertaining. Send children’s party invitations through the mail, she suggests, because children love receiving mail addressed to them. If you throw a dinner party, serve dinner right away to keep people from leaving right after dinner and ending the party early. Then there are the many many recipes, disorganized and sparely written, yet oozing the same tested authenticity that oozes from your grand-aunt’s tattered favorites, except with more pictures of pine cones with googly eyes.

The spaghetti recipe caught my googly eye (just the left one) because it uses yogurt, something I haven’t tried on pasta. Also, I dissed onions last week even though caramelized onion have to be one of my top five favorite ingredients (I feel a future post coming on…). The sweet browned onions, creamy yogurt, and buttery pine nuts give the illusion of eating something as rich as Alfredo without the consequences, although this dish isn’t exactly light either. The recipe has been scaled down to feed two generously or three lightly. The photograph shows one of two servings on a standard dinner plate.

Notes on the photograph: We actually use that napkin holder. Somebody, don’t know who, made it for us, don’t know when. Since nobody’s sure if she’s dead yet, we haven’t replaced it. You can’t go randomly offending napkin-holder-making ladies, they might be important or have you in their will or something. Besides, it serves its purpose; napkin-dispensing shouldn’t cost more than the napkins dispensed, at least not until you strike gold with the napkin-holder-making-lady inheritance. I don’t know where that cat came from either. When it’s not camping up food photography, its main job is containing paper clips. And that plate is chipped, I promise.

Adapted from I Like You, by Amy Sedaris who was in turn—
Inspired by The Glorious Foods of Greece, by Diane Kochilas
Makes 2-3 servings

· 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
· 2 large onions, coarsely diced
· 6 ounces uncooked spaghetti
· 1 cup Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese (see note below)
· 3 ounces coarsely grated Kefalotiri or other salty hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan, divided in half
· 4 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts
· Salt to taste
· Chopped parsley to garnish

1) Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions. Fry the onions, stirring constantly, until they darken a shade and begin to dry out. Drop the heat to medium-low and continue stirring frequently until the onions are caramel-colored. The whole process may take half an hour, but don’t rush it, and don’t let the onions burn! Cover the pan, remove pan from heat, and set aside. (You may want to start the water boiling for the pasta when the onions look almost ready.)

2) Boil the spaghetti in salted water. While the pasta cooks, stir the yogurt into the onions. When the spaghetti is nearly al dente, ladle 3 tablespoons of the hot pasta water to the yogurt-onion mixture to thin it a bit. Stir, then mix in the pine nuts and half the cheese. Reserve another extra half cup of the pasta water just in case.

3) Drain the pasta. Dump the hot noodles into the pan with the onions and stir until spaghetti is thoroughly coated, adding more pasta water as needed to thin the sauce, keeping in mind that the pasta will thicken a bit as it cools. Taste and adjust for salt.

4) Serve on warmed plates and sprinkle with the reserved cheese and the parsley.

Note: If you can’t find Greek yogurt (like me, sigh), drain 2 cups of plain, unflavored, unsweetened yogurt through a yogurt cheese maker or a colander or sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Place the colander over a bowl in the fridge for at least 12 hours, 24 if possible. This may not work well if your yogurt has been heavily fortified with gelatin. In my experience, moderate amounts of pectin don’t seem to cause problems.