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Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would.

Why was I using it in the first place if I wasn’t going to reproduce Caruso’s purple velouté? Because I had the idea of blending it with semolina, flour and eggs to make purple tagliatelle–only, it didn’t work out as hoped.

I had semolina to use up before Passover, so I made a reasonably large batch of dough that I divided into thirds to color a couple of ways.

The red cabbage mash just turned the dough a distinct light gray and very sticky in the food processor, even after squeezing the lightly-cooked cabbage well, which only goes to show that some pigmented ingredients don’t have the color strength you hoped for in the quantity you need to keep things working. More cabbage would have made things worse and goopier, not purpler.

Spinach, on the other hand–a couple of ounces of nuked and squeezed-out spinach made a (sort-of) appetizing green sheet of pasta with a deep forest-green color. Once I’d kneaded enough flour in to get it unstuck and rollable (semolina makes it really, really sticky), it more or less cooperated, and I cut rough strips with a pizza roller and floured them to try and keep them from sticking together horribly.  I rolled up the parchment sheet to let them dry a little overnight in the fridge before cooking. The plain third of the noodle dough–same deal, needed a lot of flour for rolling, cutting and separating.

fresh pasta drying on parchment paper
The next day, I decided to try microwaving my fresh pasta–would it hold together or turn to mush?

Usually I start spaghetti and other dried pastas in a container with the cold water and let it all heat up together, but I was afraid that the fresh pasta could just turn to mush. So I heated the water by itself in the lidded container to a simmer (in my microwave, it’s about 5 minutes for about a quart of water), then dumped in all the green noodles, stirred lightly with a fork, put the lid back on and microwaved 4 minutes more, until the water started bubbling up to the rim. I let it sit a few minutes, stirred, and fished out a strand with a fork. It was cooked through and had the right springiness to the bite.

spinach tagliatelle

Microwave-cooked spinach tagliatelle. Clockwise–frozen spinach, bag of semolina, chunk of Trader Joe’s Toscano vegetarian asiago cheese.

I drained the pasta, stirred a small drizzle of olive oil through it to keep it from sticking, grated on a bit of garlic and a couple of shavings of asiago cheese, stirred lightly to catch the last of the pasta water, and added a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It was surprisingly good. The plain tagliatelle and the spinach batch both worked beautifully. I hadn’t bothered trying to roll out the sticky gray stuff from the red cabbage experiment–too disheartening–so I’ve no idea if it would have worked out eventually or not. I just know it wouldn’t have been purple.

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