I was watching The Good Wife last night and I got to thinking that there are degrees of cooking, the same way there are degrees of crimes. I will never be accused of cooking in the 1st degree. I very rarely premeditate the execution of a dish. I almost never decide what to make by looking at a cookbook first. Recipes usually come from a sweep of the fridge or pantry and a look at what's hanging out at the market. This is my favorite way to cook. So I guess I'm usually more guilty of cooking in the 3rd degree. I cannot describe the feeling of extreme satisfaction that overcomes me when I realize that I have accidentally stockpiled ingredients that happen to be magic together, and that I can combine said ingredients in a dish that sings.
This is a story about just such a moment. I went to the greenmarket and grabbed mustard greens because, well, I can't remember the last time I used them and because, like all leafy greens, they are just so dang good for you. They are coming to the end of their season and so I figured I'd give 'em a shot before they disappear. Plus they looked crisp and bright and ready to be eaten. I grabbed those greens without thinking about what I would do with them. I grabbed those greens in a moment of passion.
I got those greens home and thought - ok, now that I've got them in my grips, what do I do with them? This is the moment when I do sometimes get nervous. Was I too rash? Will my spur-of-the-moment purchase be more hassle than it was worth? Will I have to go back to the store to get supplementary goods in order to make this ingredient shine? I trolled the internet for a bit and found a recipe from Martha Stewart for pasta with caramelized onions and bitter greens. Ding ding ding. We had a winner. I had garlic, onions, pasta and veggie broth at my disposal. It was destiny. You know when you are paying for something and you go digging in your wallet or pocket and find that you actually have the perfect amount of change for the purchase you are making - and you feel like, wow - I was meant to buy this. Well, that's how I felt when I realized that I happened to have all of the ingredients I needed for this dish, and that I was going to be able to make good use of the pile of onions that had been patiently lying in wait on my counter for some time.
Mustard greens transform when cooked, mellowing out as they wilt. If you chew on a raw leaf you get a very spicy kick in the mouth and you rapidly realize that it is not from the wind that mustard greens get their name. Mustard greens come from the same plant as mustard seeds. Mustard seeds are used whole and crushed in curries and also to make mustard, as in, the condiment. So spice you will get, especially when they are raw. However, in some respects, this pasta dish that pairs the spicy greens with sweet caramelized onions is genius. Normally, caramelized onions, alone, would be far too sweet for pasta - but when paired with the greens, they harmonize and strike a balance. I would never have thought of this unlikely pair in a pasta dish - I truly couldn't have done better if I had planned it. And so I stand accused of cooking in the 3rd, and if a successful dish is the evidence, then I am definitely guilty.
Recipe adapted from Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Bitter Greens at Marthastewart.com
What you'll need:
Mustard greens, one bunch
Onions, 3 large
Garlic cloves, 3 or 4 large ones
Veggie broth, 4 cups
Pasta, 1 pound
Olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan
Sugar, 1 tsp.
Salt and fresh black pepper
Coat the bottom of your pan with olive oil. Do not use non-stick, if possible, because you are looking for some brown bits of oniony goodness to stick to the bottom of the pan. They are full of flavor and will add body to your sauce.
Thinly slice the onions and crush your garlic cloves, leaving the garlic almost whole. Add both the onions and the garlic to the oil in the pan to saute.
Add the sugar to help the caramelization along.
Really leave the onions alone in that pan - let them do their thing. The more you stir them, the longer it'll take for them to achieve the level of caramelization you're looking for.
Boil the pasta in salted water. Do not cook it completely - cook it only for a few minutes, you will finish cooking it in the sauce.
Once the onions have gotten sufficiently brown and sweet looking, turn the heat up a bit and add your veggie stock. Scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
Drain your undercooked pasta and add it to the pan with the onions and broth. Give it a mix to coat the pasta in the broth.
Add the greens and cover the pan for a couple of minutes - just to help wilt the greens.
The goal is for the pasta to finish cooking in the broth, absorbing it and helping to flavor the pasta.
Once the pasta is al dente, the dish is done.
Check and adjust seasoning.