I'm 100 percent behind the idea that the best way to learn about a city or region is through its food. Whenever I take an out-of-town trip, I enjoy eating like a local. I think it creates a bond with the community — we have something in common, even if it's just some Frosted Flakes-coated French toast. Now, I've never been to PNW, aka the Pacific Northwest, but what better way to learn about the area than by cooking a medley of seasonal meals — 100 of them — inspired by it?
When I first received Kim O'Donnel's third vegetarian cookbook, PNW Veg (Sasquatch Books, 2017), I'll admit I was a tad hesitant. My main concern was that the veggie-driven recipes included ingredients we don't have readily available in Florida (I had a hard time finding fresh rhubarb at the grocery store recently). But PNW Veg, which hit bookstore shelves back in May, isn't anything like what I expected. From cover to cover, the meatless recipe collection, based on what O’Donnel refers to as the "land of abundance," is accompanied by Charity Burggraaf's beautiful photos that make your eyes rejoice, and then your mouth water.
All 250 pages are broken down into nine chapters: Starters & Snacks; Soups; Salads; Sides; Savory Pancakes, Patties & Tarts; Grains & Pastas; Protein; Sweet Things; and Fridge & Freezer Pantry Items. Several recipes are marked gluten-free and/or vegan for readers with other dietary preferences, or anyone itching to explore the V or GF world, and each food formula also includes a section titled "Kitchen Notes." These tip readers off to important things they need know about a recipe's ingredients, which ultimately makes the cooking process easier and efficient. Everything's laid out in detail so there's no confusion.
Please don't misunderstand, though — the cookbook's featured dishes aren't hard to make. Even better, they don't take all day to pull off. I completed a couple of them in a little over an hour each. Easy as that.
What I enjoyed most about part-time vegetarian and Seattleite O'Donnel's latest, which encourages the repurposing of leftover ingredients to let your creative side run wild, is the serving sizes. With many recipes geared toward six or eight servings, the meals are great for families, especially ones that don't have lots of time to cook. It's just my boyfriend and I at home, so we tested out the baked pasta and greens casserole on a Sunday for dinner; the soul-warming pan took us a week to finish.
You can't go wrong with this one.
Baked Pasta and Greens Casserole
(c)2017 by Kim O'Donnel. All rights reserved. Excerpted from PNW Veg by permission of Sasquatch Books.
There are more renditions of this Italian-American comfort classic than there are days of the year. For a Northwest twist, I add fresh rosemary and kale, which play nicely with cooked-down onions. As president of the Baked Pasta Casserole Lovers Club, my husband, Russ, has given this version his seal of approval. He especially loves to pack this for his lunch the next day.
MAKES 8 SERVINGS
4 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 pound dried penne or other short pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced yellow onion, in half-moons
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 bunches kale, ribs removed and leaves cut into 1-inch pieces (10 to 12 cups)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (from 1 to 2 sprigs)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 cups tomato puree or strained tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
3/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1-inch pieces
KITCHEN NOTES: For the kale, use whatever variety you prefer, but my favorite is the dark-green and ruffled lacinato (also sold as Tuscan or dinosaur kale).
1. In a large pot, bring 12 cups water to a boil over high heat and add 3 teaspoons of the salt. Add the pasta, return to a boil, and cook until 75 percent done. (For example, if the package says to cook for 7 minutes, then cook for just 5 minutes.) Drain, transfer to a large bowl, and cover with a dish towel.
2. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and butter, tilting the pan to coat. Add the onion, turn to coat, and cook for about 20 minutes; you’ll have heap of reduced onions — softened, sweet, and somewhat pliable, but not burned.
3. Add the garlic, then the kale in batches, carefully turning with tongs until coated. Add the rosemary, red pepper flakes, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt, cooking the kale until it is wilted, 5 to 7 minutes.
4. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the tomato puree and oregano, cover, and keep warm.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
6. In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta, lemon zest, nutmeg, and pepper.
7. Add the kale mixture to the pasta, stirring until well incorporated. Stir in the ricotta, followed by 3 cups of the warm tomato puree. Gently stir until everything is combined. It will be a little soupy; that’s okay.
8. Pour the remaining tomato puree into a 10-by-15-inch (or similar) baking dish and cover the bottom. Spread the pasta mixture over it. Top with the mozzarella and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbling on the edges. For a deeper golden color on the cheese and a crispy topping, finish the pasta under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes.
9. Allow the dish to cool for at least 5 minutes before serving. It reheats well.
Alexandria Jones is an adventurous foodie and a USF St. Petersburg graduate student studying Digital Journalism and Design, along with Food Writing and Photography.