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Pasta Puttanesca (and The Protein and Dairy Debate)

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When people ask me what my favorite food is, I typically say “anything with seafood.” It can be French, Italian, Vietnamese, Peruvian, or virtually any other cuisine that serves seafood. Provided the food is cooked properly, it’s rare I come across fish of any kind I don’t love. What’s my second favorite seafood you might ask? Cheese 

I personally don’t mind when fish and cheese are combined. I view it as a marriage of two of my favorite foods. However, I know some Italian traditionalists may view it as a huge faux pas.

The Kitchn has a page on the great fish and cheese debate, and while it in no way resolves the issue, it does shed some light as to why it may be in place. In summary, some may argue cheese overpowers the delicate flavor of fish, great cheese making regions tend to be landlocked and traditionally don’t have as much access to fish, and historically, and it was forbidden in some religions to have protein and dairy.

When I initially found a recipe for Pasta Puttanesca (hardly a fish dish, but it does have anchovy in it), I read through comments and noticed people said any cheese garnish was a no-no. So would a purist shun the addition of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano on top? Maybe. Probably. But I thought it was a delicious finishing touch, although perhaps garnish at your own risk.  

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Pasta Puttanesca

Adapted from The NY Times

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 or more cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
  • 6 or more anchovy fillets
  • 1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives, preferably oil-cured
  • 3 tablespoons capers
  • 1 heaping teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
  • 1 pound linguine or other long pasta
  • Chopped fresh Italian Parsley, optional
  • Parmigiano Reggiano, optional

Bring pot of water to boil and salt it.

Meanwhile, warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil with garlic and anchovies in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly golden and anchovies have somewhat disintegrated into oil.

Drain tomatoes and crush with fork or hands (feel free to reserve the drained tomato juice for a Bloody Mary). Add to skillet, with some salt and pepper. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and mixture becomes saucy, about 10 minutes. Stir in olives, capers and red pepper flakes, and continue to simmer.

Cook pasta, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente. Drain quickly and toss with sauce and remaining tablespoon of oil. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary, garnish with herbs and Parmigiano Reggiano, if desired, and serve.

Mushroom Cream Pasta (My Interpretation of Forest Floor Frenzy)

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Going out to a restaurant with me can be a bit of an adventure. Growing up it was sort of a given that my family and I would share (or at least sample) everything we ordered, and as a result we would consult with one another on all of the dishes we wanted. Under no circumstance would we ever order two of the same things. Why? Because there are always new menu items to try and what if the item we ordered two of was mediocre? Duplicates are boring.

These days when I’m out at a restaurant with friends I tend to subtly (or not so subtly) recommend dishes they should order—mainly dishes that I want to try but don’t want to order myself. When I went out to dinner with a good friend a few months ago I was torn between two items: some sort of ragu pasta and a Forest Floor Frenzy, a glorious pasta dish with a mushroom, sherry, and cream sauce. Shortly after opening our menus it was established that my friend would order the mushroom pasta since it is one of his favorite dishes. Since I refuse to order the same dish as anyone else at the table I decided to order the ragu, a dish that ended up being tasty, but rather forgettable.

I ended up having serious entrée envy after sampling a few bites of my buddy’s life-changing, delicious pasta dish. I quickly decided I would order the Forest Floor Frenzy every time I went back to that restaurant, even if everyone at the table ordered the same… although I might persistently recommend others order something else…

What made the dish so divine? I’m not sure. The chef has appeared on local cooking shows to prepare the dish and I’m sure you can find the recipe somewhere on YouTube. The recipe itself isn’t that difficult or complex: pasta, mushrooms, sherry, cream, and walnuts. While these are all simple ingredients the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s just a flawless combination. Here is my interpretation…

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Forest Floor Frenzy (Mushroom Cream Pasta)

Inspired by Bizzarro Italian Cafe

  • 1 pound pasta (a parpadelle, tagliatelle or fettucini is ideal but whatever you have on hand will work [I used mini bow tie])
  • 4 strips bacon, cut into lardons (small strips)
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 1 pound assorted mushrooms (I used portabello and crimini), cleaned and chopped into a medium to large dice
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup sherry (white wine would also work)
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • Approximately 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional but a nice crunchy addition)
  • Chives for garnish (optional)

Cook bacon until crispy in a large sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat, remove using a slotted spoon and blot grease with a paper towel; set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until al dente (usually a minute or so less than package instructions).

In the same sauté pan you cooked the bacon in (no reason to remove the grease), cook onions over medium-high heat for a few mintues, until softened, Add mushrooms and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 2 additional minutes. Add sherry and scrape up any bits stuck to the pan and cook just until alcohol has burned off and has slightly reduced in volume. Add thyme, salt, pepper, and cream and cook for approximately 5 minutes, until thickened and reduced.

Toss together with cooked pasta, bacon, walnuts (if using), and parmesan; taste for seasoning, transfer to individual serving bowls and top with optional chopped chives and additional parmesan.

Butternut Squash and Spinach Carbonara

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In a perfect world I would eat pasta every single day. Seriously, I just cannot get enough of it. During the dark days when I was on a no-carb, no-sugar, no-fat diet, the first thing I did when it ended was have a huge bowl of pasta with plenty of butter and a ton of cheese and black pepper.

While I think enjoying anything in moderation is okay, pasta is something that’s hard for me to not eat excessively. It’s just so good! As a result, I’ve tried to prepare it in healthier ways (i.e., less cheese, more veggies) and, you guys, I think I’ve come up with one of my favorite ways of eating it: butternut squash carbonara.

Anyone that has had carbonara knows how sinfully and richly delicious it is. The traditional method involves tossing hot pasta with pancetta or bacon fat, bacon bits, egg, and cheese to create a luxurious and decadent sauce. While this version still has fat and cheese (bacon and parm…. but in moderation!), the use of whole wheat pasta, butternut squash, and spinach makes it a healthier alternative.

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Butternut Squash and Spinach Carbonara

Adapted from Bon Appetit, serves 6

  • 4 oz. thick cut bacon or pancetta, diced
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
  • 1 2-lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into ½” pieces
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 lb whole wheat pasta (fettucine, linguine, or spaghetti)
  • 2-3 cups fresh, baby spinach
  • 1/4 cup finely grated parmessan, plus more for serving

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add pancetta, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 8–10 minutes. Add sage and continue to cook for a minute or so more. Using a slotted spoon, remove from pan and set aside, blotting bacon and sage with paper towels to remove excess grease.

Remove the majority of bacon grease (leave a few teaspoons), add squash and onion to skillet; lightly season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, 8–10 minutes (add garlic the final minute or so of cooking). Add broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until squash is soft and liquid is reduced by half, 15–20 minutes. Let cool slightly, then purée in a blender until smooth. Reserve skillet (no need to wash it at this point).

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta water.

In the reserved skillet, combine pasta, squash purée, and 1/4 cup pasta water and cook over medium heat, tossing and adding more pasta water as needed, until sauce coats pasta, about 2 minutes (I found I needed less than 1/2 cup pasta water to get the sauce to the perfect consistency). Mix in 1/4 cup parmesan and spinach (I like my spinach just barely wilted, so add earlier if you like yours more cooked); season with salt and pepper.

Serve pasta topped with reserved pancetta and sage. Add additional parmesan cheese and pepper, if desired.

Just a note: I found my leftovers got very clumpy when they cooled, but actually reheated surprisingly nicely.

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Sweet Potato Gnocchi

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A few months ago a bunch of friends and I took a cooking class together. It was a really fun, laid-back night that involved various work stations where we helped prepare everything from gnocchi to roasted pork to caramelized apple tart. After 90% of the meal was done being prepared, we all sat back with a cocktail, let the professionals finish up the cooking, and ate family style. Best of all we left with all of the recipes and instructions for what we made, including sweet potato gnocchi.

While I had made gnocchi before, I had never made sweet potato gnocchi. I fell in love with the taste and texture and I knew I would be making these babies at home.

Really, there’s nothing difficult about making gnocchi, it can just be a slightly tedious process. One step I’ve taken to quicken up the process of making gnocchi is to forgo rolling gnocchi on either a gnocchi board or fork (this is the step that gives gnocchi ridges). The rationality behind giving gnocchi ridges is that it helps sauce stick. While I can’t argue with that logic, it’s honestly a step I don’t find to be entirely necessary. Sauce tends to stick well enough and who minds sopping up leftover sauce with a crusty piece of warm bread (that’s my favorite part)?

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Adapted from Blue Ribbon Cooking Classes

  • 2 pounds of sweet potatoes (or yams), rinsed, patted dry, pierced all over with a fork
  • 1 12-ounce container fresh ricotta cheese (that has been drained in a sieve for 2 hours [to ensure excess moisture has been expelled])
  • 1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting surface)

Bake sweet potatoes in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until potatoes are cooked through and tender.

Once potatoes are done, let cool slightly, cut in half, and scoop flesh into a medium bowl. In class I was told that you could just mash sweet potato. Something about the gluten in russet potatoes is different and it’s recommended you not mash those, but mashing sweet potatoes is fine… alternatively you could process them in a food mill or rice them using a potato ricer. You should have 3 cups.

Add strained ricotta, parmesan, brown sugar, salt, and nutmeg and mix until incorporated. Mix in flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, until soft dough forms.

Turn dough onto a floured surface, divide into 6 equal pieces. Rolloing between palms and floured work surface, form each of the 6 pieces into a 20-inch long rope (approximately 1 inch thick), sprinkling with additional flour as needed if dough becomes to sticky. Cut each rope into 20 pieces (I used a bench scraper but a knife works just as well).

Do ahead: At this point you can flash freeze the gnocchi on a baking sheet before placing in a ziplock bag and freezing for several months (no need to defrost when you’re ready to cook). It’s important to note that these should be cooked as soon as possible or frozen immediately. I didn’t find that they held at room temperature or in the refrigerator very well.

To cook gnocchi, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. In batches, cook gnocchi for a few minutes until they float and rise to the top (about 5 minutes). If cooking frozen gnocchi, they will take closer to 6 or 7 minutes to cook.

These are quite delicious served with a simple sauce of brown butter and sage but I mainly made these to serve with ragu. The sweetness and pillow-like consistency was a great juxtaposition with the rich, meaty, hearty profile of a ragu.

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(6 Hour) Lamb and Beef Short Rib Ragu

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So, I’ll start off by saying this is one of the best things I’ve ever made. Tender, fall-off-the-bone meat is one of my favorite things in the world and after making this dish I realized it only gets better when it’s been braised in a rich, decadent tomato sauce. I’ve made my fair share of ragu sauces before with mixed results; really, I had made decent versions, but none that I could declare exceptional (and certainly not a ragu I would describe as being one of the best things [period] I’ve ever made).

I initially found the recipe on The Amateur Gourmet (where it was adapted from Canal House Vol. 2.) and I have to say it sounded a bit odd. Besides salt and pepper, the dish is mainly seasoned with nutmeg and anchovies. While many may think “weird” or “eeeew,” I could only think of how much I wanted to make it. See, when I’m at a restaurant I try and order the weirdest, most unique thing on the menu. I’m totally that guy that will order a Yak burger or tofu glazed in squid ink. So when a spice that can go either sweet or savory and a fish I’ve only used in salad dressing showed up in a tomato sauce recipe I just had to try it.

The thing I loved most about this is how versatile it was. I found it most delicious served with pasta, but I loved it over soft polenta and a few nights later when I was feeling “healthy” I found it to be delicious over brown rice. It was even perfection spooned over a crusty piece of bread. Next time I make it (which I hope is soon) I definitely plan on using it as a sauce in lasagna and I think it would be divine served over gnocchi. It makes a pretty hefty portion and the leftovers reheated really well (I actually think they tasted better a day after it had been made as the flavors melded more).

Before I give you the recipe, here are a few tips:

  • You should be able to find lamb neck and beef short ribs at most butchers
  • Do not rush the browning process on the meat! It will have more flavor the browner it gets.
  • Do NOT taste the sauce the first hour or two. I wanted to make sure it was seasoned properly but nearly gagged on the heavy anchovy taste. However, the anchovy flavor really mellowed out a few hours into the cooking process and became much more balanced. In the end, you really couldn’t tell there were anchovies—simply added a je ne sais quoi quality.
  • With so few ingredients, make sure you use good ones! Freshly grated nutmeg has much more flavor so go with that instead of the pre-ground stuff in the spice bottle. Also, now is not the time for a cheap wine! Lastly, I find that San Marzano tomatoes have the best flavor (definitely worth the extra buck or two per can)

Lamb and Short Rib Ragu

  • 1.5 pounds lamb necks (or shoulder chops) (should be roughly one lamb neck)
  • 1.5 pound beef short ribs
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 ribs celery, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • Approximately 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 2 cups white wine
  • One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • One 15-ounce can plain tomato sauce (weird, I know, I used plain Hunts)
  • Handful of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped, for garnish (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese (optional)

In a large, heavy, deep skillet or pan (I used a 5.5 quart Dutch oven that was almost filled to the brim), heat up 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Let heat until nearly smoking. Meanwhile, pat meat dry with paper towels (dry meat sears better) and season with salt and pepper.

Sear and brown meat in batches (I found it took two batches) until browned on all sides. Do not rush this process as browned meat has more flavor. It probably took about 5 minutes per side for a very browned crust. Remove meat from pan and continue additional batches. Meanwhile, chop and prepare remaining ingredients.

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Once all meat has browned and been removed, add in onion, celery, and carrot (I found there was enough grease in the pot from the meat, but add more olive oil if necessary). Cook vegetables until nicely browned (approximately 8 minutes), then add garlic and anchovies and cook for a minute or so longer (you don’t want to brown the garlic too much as it takes on a bitter taste).

Pour wine into the pan and scrape up any crusty bits stuck to the pan (so much flavor!) and cook for a minute or so, until wine has just slightly reduced.

Return meat to the pan and pour in the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce. Bring to a low boil and reduce to a simmer (low heat) and cook (uncovered) for approximately 3.5-4 hours, stirring occasionally. I added a few splashes of water here and there to ensure the sauce didn’t get too thick, but don’t fret too much, you’ll only need to add half a cup or so the entire cooking process.

Once meat is fork tender, remove from pot, let cool slightly, and shred, being sure to discard bones, large pieces of fat, and any gristle. Return shredded meat to pot and continue cooking for 1.5-2 more hours.

Serve over pasta, polenta, or rice; sprinkle with parsley and/or parmesan cheese, if desired (it was so good, even without cheese, which you’ll never hear me say [I typically think cheese makes everything better]).

Prepare to enjoy an epic meal!

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Spaetzel with Fresh Herbs

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Every time I enter a Sur la Table, Williams-Sonoma, or any establishment that sells kitchen equipment I fantasize about buying one of everything. Sadly, my small kitchen is almost at full capacity and I can hardly open a cupboard or drawer without various cooking and baking gadgets falling out. And then you factor in that I really can’t afford one of everything (or even one of 1/100 of everything [if that]) and I realize improvising is not only fun, but also economical. I remember the days before even having a rolling pin when I just used a red wine bottle. A good home cook should be able to substitute ingredients or devices as needed.

But that’s not to say I don’t have one or two single-use gadgets that vastly improve my life. And even though I so rarely use some of them I smile when I dust them off, as I know they make cooking so much easier.

Before embarking on the adventure of making spaetzel I tried to read almost every review on zee interwebz. I not only wanted a tasty spaetzel, I also wanted an easy method. Long before a spaetzel maker was invented, people made do without. If millions of people could do it without a device I figured I could, but I quickly realized I had no desire trying to press gooey dough through a strainer over steamy, boiling water. So, I headed to my local cooking store and bought a single-use device for a very reasonable price.

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If you feel like improvising and using a colander, DO IT! Use a colander with holes about 1/4 of an inch wide and using a flexible spatula, press the spaetzel dough (or is it batter?) through the holes. But really, I promise a spaetzel maker is way easier and pretty cheap.

Spaetzel with Fresh Herbs

Adapted from Wolfgang Puck

After searching high and low for a spaetzel recipe, I finally stumbled across one from Wolfgang Puck. While I was underwhelmed after visits to three of his restaurants (I’m sure they would have been 5 star experiences had he actually been in the kitchen making my food), I couldn’t think of a better recipe source. And he (and his recipe) definitely didn’t disappoint. They managed to be light but had a bit of bite and chew left in them.

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • 1 3/4 cups milk
  • 1 pound all purpose flour (I use the “spoon and sweep” method of measuring flour and found it equaled 3 cups plus 2.5 tablespoons)
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup plus healthy drizzle olive oil
  • Salt Pepper, to taste
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley
  • 2 tablespoons fresh minced dill

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks, egg, and milk together.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and mix until blended. Do not over mix at this stage. Cover the bowl and refrigerate. Allow the batter to rest for at least 1 hour (or overnight).

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Bring salted water to a boil in a large pan.

Using a spaetzel maker (or other method), press spaetzel batter into boiling water. Cook for approximately 3 minutes (it helps to cook in batches, to ensure spaetzel doesn’t stick).

Transfer cooked spaetzle to a bowl of ice water to shock. When cool to the touch, drain well. Stir in a healthy drizzle of olive oil (about 1 1/2  – 2 tablespoons). (At this point you can cover and refrigerate up to 2 days) <–Those were Wolfgang’s directions. I found that on day 2 the spaetzel was more gummy, but still fine. I would recommend cooking the same day.

When ready to serve, heat a scant 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add the spaetzel but DO NOT stir for 2-3 minutes. You want the spaetzel to slightly brown. After a few minutes, stir in the unsalted butter. Continue to cook for a few more minutes until thoroughly heated and lightly browned. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with freshly chopped herbs. Serve immediately.

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Cooking With A Broken Limb (Kitchen Sink Pasta Salad)

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My nerves were getting the best of me as I attempted to crack a safe on an eerily quiet, dark evening. The only sounds I heard were the quiet splat of raindrops on a window and the sound of my heart rapidly beating. I was in the house of a wealthy recluse who was known for hoarding money, jewels, saffron, truffles, and caviar. My credit card bill was due and I had been coveting the Audi R8 and I knew I the only way I could pay for either was to rob a bank or someone rich. There was just one thing in between me and the sexiest car in the world, an abundance of the most expensive spice, and enough cash to last me a lifetime: this stupid safe. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted Safe Cracking for Dummies, it wasn’t any help at all and I had no idea how I was going to crack a supposedly uncrackable safe.

I was contemplating my next move when I heard footsteps. I tried not to hyperventilate; concerned any sounds I made might make my presence known.  I could have spent a few more minutes trying to open that damn safe, but I decided to make a run for it, sprinted towards the nearest window, and jumped out. Thankfully the sidewalk broke my fall and prevented me from serious injury. I was thankful to only have broken my ankle.

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Okay, so maybe I broke my ankle when I fell down while walking. I was on my way to meet up with some friends.

Hobbling around on crutches tends to lead people to ask me what happened to my very broken ankle. I’ve heard such cool stories involving snowboarding, sports, parachute accidents…. It’s just kind of sad that that the sidewalk was wet, I slipped, and I managed to break my ankle. I’m totally open to any stories I can tell people since I’m sick of telling the same boring account of how I sustained my injury.

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Being on crutches has made cooking a bit of a problem. I’m very reliant on the amazing people in my life to feed me and chauffeur me about. Most endeavors in the kitchen have turned out with subpar results. I haven’t had much creativity and even when I have hobbled into the kitchen with my crutches nothing has turned out very well. It’s been discouraging to have less than stellar results and there’s only one thing that stands out as a success: Kitchen Sink Pasta Salad.

I stumbled across a recipe for an intriguing pasta salad on The Amateur Gourmet a while back. I enjoy his blog and had success with the one other recipe of his I’ve made. What I liked about this recipe is that it isn’t so much a recipe, but a guideline in which you can switch out ingredients for others, basically use whatever is convenient.

My version follows the original pretty closely, but with a few alterations. If you make this, feel free to add whatever you have on hand!

Kitchen Sink Pasta Salad

Adapted from Kitchen Sink Pasta Salad 

  • 1 lb penne (the squiggly corkscrew ones or ziti would also be nice)
  • ½ cup yogurt (Greek is best, but whatever is on hand will work, so long as it’s plain)
  • Approximately ¼ cup sour cream
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Handful of chopped dill
  • Handful of chopped cilantro

The following are the fruits, veggies, and cheese that I used:

  • A few handfuls of diced smoked mozzarella
  • 1 cucumber, seeded and diced
  • 2 shallots, medium dice
  • 1 plum, diced
  • 1 nectarine, diced
  • A few stems of celery, diced
  • One tomato, diced (I recommend roasting your tomato first, which is what I did)

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1. Cook pasta to al dente

2. While pasta is cooking, mix together yogurt, sour cream, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. My dressing was super tangy, which I enjoyed. If you want it to have a bit less bite, feel free to add a pinch of sugar.

3. Once pasta is cooked, drain and let cool slightly.

4. While the pasta is warm, but not hot, stir in the yogurt dressing. You want the pasta to still be warm as it will “drink” up some of the dressing and make the pasta more flavorful. It may look like you have too much dressing, but keep in mind you’ll add your remaining ingredients later which also need to be coated in dressing.

5. Let cool a few minutes more before adding all remaining ingredients.

I started eating mine when it wasn’t entirely cooled (because I was hangry) and thought it was fine, but preferred it once it had been completely chilled. This pasta salad had so much going on as far as flavor and texture. Creamy, crunch, tangy, sweet. It was an explosion of deliciousness and I can see myself making variations of this forever.