by Chef Colin Ambrose
Ask any chef what his essential ingredients are in the kitchen and chances are he’ll position garlic somewhere near the top of the list. I’m no different, though I like to play with my garlic somewhat—roasting it and turning it into a puree. The process is easy, and it yields a wonderful garlic-infused oil as a byproduct that I find lends a depth of flavor to a wide range of dishes.
Whole peeled garlic has been one of the great gifts of technology for busy food-service kitchens—all you need to do is slice off the ends and get started. In this case, getting started involves an oven heated to 375 degrees, a small roasting pan and olive oil. Combine the garlic with the oil at a ratio of one-to-one (at home, it’s probably best to make that a one-cup-to-one-cup ratio; at the Little Kitchen, we measure in gallons), then place the garlic-and-oil-filled pan in the oven and stir every 10 minutes. After about 30 minutes, the cloves should be golden brown and soft to the touch. Remove from the oven and drain off and reserve the oil. Puree the cloves in a food processor until it resembles creamy peanut butter. This heady puree can be held in a jar in the fridge for 10 days, and can be used in everything from pasta to soups. It even makes for a nice spread on crusty bread: slather it on slices and broil them with a sprinkle of Parmesan and herbs—and you’ve got yourself an easy and delicious garlic toast. Likewise, jar the oil and keep it in the fridge for up to 10 days, using it to sauté vegetables and give them an extra oomph-y kick.
This penne recipe comes from my first season in Amagansett at the first restaurant I owned. It combines spinach with penne pasta and mozzarella cheese, and is finished with toasted pine nuts. I like the nuts lightly toasted, and a gently heated sauté pan will toast them in about 5 minutes—just be sure to keep the nuts moving.
Our farmer friends Bette & Dale grow a variety of garlic called "Music" which exhibits a heavy head of cloves with a light pink hue. The piles of drying stalks lay under a maple tree in the cool afternoon shade at the farmers market. As I shot a few photos of the scene, Bette was quick to run over and show me the biggest specimen. A proud small plot-farmer, she considers every ounce of product harvested special. It was a good reminder that sometimes going the easy route—buying whole peeled garlic, for example—isn’t the most enjoyable one. But wherever you source your ingredients from—small, local grower or big, chain superstore—I’m hoping you’ll find this dish treats them as specially as Bette treats her crop.
Penne with Spinach, Toasted Pine Nuts and Fresh Mozzarella
1 cup garlic cloves, cleaned and trimmed of their woody ends
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons salt
1/2 of a 1-pound box of penne pasta
2 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
3 cups chopped spinach, rinsed carefully and chopped rough
1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced into fingernail-size pieces
1/2 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
1) Make your garlic puree following the directions above and using the 1 cup garlic and 1 cup olive oil listed in the ingredients above.
2) Bring your pasta water to a boil and season with the salt. Cook the pasta based on the directions on the box.
3) While the pasta bubbles, bring a large sauté pan to heat over medium flame, then add the stock followed by 4 tablespoons of the garlic puree and the spinach. Stir.
4) When the pasta is done, drain it and toss it in the garlic broth along with the mozzarella. Plate and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. Serve while hot.
Colin Ambrose owns and operates Estia's Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, New York. He is commited to creating delicious, sustainable cuisine with the best seasonal ingredients.
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