In the introduction to the Summer chapter of my cookbook Whole Grain Mornings, I talked about my approach to summer cooking — how it should be easy and effortless. How ironic it is that with all of the beautiful produce and fruit in the markets, summer meals are usually the ones that feel the most haphazard and thrown together. I used to get down on myself about this, wondering why I never took advantage of all the beautiful squashes and tomatoes and fresh herbs, making more complex meals or interesting new recipes. Instead I often rely on simple dinners of sliced tomatoes, cheese and good bread or big leafy salads with homemade buttermilk dressing. Dessert is often a simple bowl of berries or a scoop (or two) of homemade ice cream. I think moving to Seattle a few years ago changed the way I think about summer cooking. I’m no longer hard on myself or set any major expectations for kitchen goals or recipes to tackle. When it’s light until 9 or 10 p.m. and you happen to have the warmest June on record, the picnic table in the backyard is too inviting to pass up and standing at the stove can … wait. Plus, what better way to celebrate all of the beautiful summer produce than doing very little to it and letting it speak for itself?
That’s what this Summer Squash Pasta with Ricotta Pesto and Tomatoes is all about: simple, delicious, summer “cooking.” We’ve eaten this twice a week now for the past few weeks, mixing up the add-ins and the type of pesto — some nights making a cashew pesto, other nights experimenting with a kale and arugula version. This recipe today uses a creamy, summer-worthy ricotta pesto and fresh little grape tomatoes. It doesn’t require any cooking and, this past week, we discovered on a rather impromptu trip to Orcas Island that it’s easy to make on the road, too. And even more satisfying, perhaps. One of the things I most love about this blog is the way I can look back through the seasons and years and glean a sense of what that time felt like for me, judging by the food I was eating, the things I was baking, the stories I was telling. If there is just one recipe that will speak to the way we ate this summer, this is it: We can’t get enough.
I first got the idea for these summer squash “noodles” from Kimberly Hasselbrink’s book, Vibrant Food. She has a recipe for the squash cloaked in a Green Goddess dressing and I bookmarked it and began experimenting with the noodles as more of a template, using different sauces and a variety of vegetables and cheeses. I know many of you are staring down a glut of zucchini or summer squash right about now — or will be in a few weeks — and I can’t imagine a better way to use it up.
As for the pesto in this recipe, it is from Nina Plank’s The Real Food Cookbook that I mentioned in my last post. I’ve been excited to dive into one of her recipes and out of all the simple main dishes and beautiful salads, this creamy ricotta pesto is the first thing that spoke to me. It’s a nut/seed-free pesto which originally had me skeptical, wanting to add walnuts or cashews, but I trust Nina so I made it just as written (except I did use walnut oil in my version instead of olive oil). Pesto purists would likely call it more of a creamy basil sauce than a true pesto — and they’d probably be right. Regardless, it’s a little slice of summer in a bowl.
The pesto is super versatile: it’s wonderful as a dip for fresh vegetables, a creamy sauce for pasta, a spread for sandwiches — we’ve even mixed a little into soft scrambled eggs. And we discovered recently that it also travels well. As I mentioned, we snuck away to Orcas Island mid-week for a little getaway. In truth, the land of wedding planning was feeling a little tense and we needed to get away from our desks and lists and email. We stayed in a little cabin at Doe Bay (I can’t wait to return and stay in a yurt!) where we read a lot on the porch, soaked in the hot springs, and had lazy mornings the likes of which I haven’t seen in some time. They looked a lot like these photos: foggy and cool, coffee in hand.
Around noon, the fog would burn off to reveal stunningly blue skies and we’d pick up and stumble into the day. We hiked Turtleback Ridge, drove to the top of Mount Constitution, and rented paddle boats at Moran State Park. There was ice cream and naps and a lot of quiet. We both settled in so quickly that we ended up booking one additional night because we couldn’t bear to head home just yet.
As for food, our cabin had a little, tiny kitchen and we brought some things along with us: coffee, fruit, eggs, bacon, bread, and ingredients for this zucchini pasta (I told you: dedication!) We also explored a bit on the island: While I’m a loyal convert of the quiche at Cafe Besalu here in Seattle, I think the quiche at Brown Bear Bakery trumps it. And the wood fired pizzas at Hogstone were delicious after a long day in the sun.
But, really the highlight was the noodles and the quiet time away. The picture below is from the picnic table right outside our cabin. We did well with the Prosecco that night, and decided to add bacon to our squash pasta (goooood idea!). I hope you like the recipe and I hope you’re finding a chance to sneak away for a hike or drive or ice cream cone this summer, too.
For the Pesto:
For the "Pasta":
To make the pesto: Place all ingredients in the food processor and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning as you see fit.
To make the “pasta”: Slice the squash into very thin strips using a mandolin, julienne slicer, or spiralizer (see note below). If you’d prefer, use a vegetable peeler for wider, thin strips. Place squash in a medium bowl and toss with salt. Place squash in a colander and let sit for 25 minutes, allowing the excess water to start to drain away. Using a clean kitchen towel or your hands, work in batches to squeeze the moisture away from the squash. Place in a medium serving bowl.
Toss zucchini noodles with 1/2 cup ricotta pesto. Fold in tomatoes and parsley. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if you’d like. This salad is best served the day that it’s made; I like to serve it immediately with crusty bread and cold wine, preferably outdoors.
Note: I broke down and bought a spiralizer last month to help make little veggie noodles. I was hesitant at first because we really don’t need any new kitchen appliances or tools, but it’s relatively inexpensive and we’ve been loving it. Alternatively, you can certainly use a mandolin or julienne slicer.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.