Pasta with Mascarpone, Lemon, Spinach, & Pine Nuts

After all of that complaining I went and did about the length of winter, today the thermometer reached 98°F. In Minneapolis. In May. Normally, such temperatures turn me into a wild beast of a thing, but truth be told, I was only a little bit sorry for today’s heat. While the meows were seeking out cool, dark corners to lay in and Bear was putting in extra screens and moving fans around, I knew that, finally, the time had come to make this pasta dish! I’ve been holding onto the recipe from the Kitchn since it was published last October, waiting for the weather to warm back up and, more importantly, for it to coincide with the sale of mascarpone cheese! The latter seeming, at points, even less likely than spring’s eventual thaw.

Being the lucky lady that I am, I found a sale on a tub of the good stuff last week, though I won’t deny tapping my foot and mulling over whether or not the time was yet nye. Turns out, it was and a sensible purchase was had! When I saw the temperature was going up this week, I knew the time was upon us to indulge.

Have you ever had pasta with a sauce that is heavy on the lemon? If you’re not shy about the idea, try it. You’ll ask yourself why you don’t eat pasta with lemon-something-or-other all the time. Take this sauce, for example. There’s so much brightness from the fresh lemon juice and the lemon zest, but then the mascarpone gets stirred in and it’s creamy, dreamy with just a little bit of sweetness to take away some of that punch from the citrus. The spinach wilts into the hot pasta, so it’s soft and earthy, but again, nestled throughout this smooth, velvety sauce that gets a little kick with some garlic, fresh cracked pepper, and just the right amount of parmesan cheese. The toasted nuts join a little fresh lemon zest on top and another turn of the pepper mill.

Every forkful feels like the perfect bite. It is as elegant a dish as it is easy. The ingredients are few, the method simple (and great for warm days), and the clean-up is virtually effortless. I used one pot, a bowl, and a colander only. Pro-tip: Mix the sauce in the same bowl you’ll serve it in! You’ll have one less bowl to clean and, better yet, your pasta be coated by every last drop!

Spaghetti with Mascarpone, Lemon, Spinach, & Pine Nuts
Serves 4 as a main course; Adapted from here.

Ingredients:
2 lemons, zested & juiced (I used 5 tablespoons of juice)
8-ounces of mascarpone cheese
1lb of spaghetti
1 very large bunch of fresh spinach (approximately 6 cups), chopped
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese
Salt & fresh pepper
3/4 cup of pine nuts, toasted

Directions:
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. While waiting for the water to bubble, prepare the sauce. Combine 3/4 of the lemon zest, lemon juice, mascarpone, garlic powder, parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper and mix until fairly smooth. If you have a few lumps, they’ll work their way out when they hit the hot pasta. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to toast your pine nuts while waiting for the water and pasta, as well. Add them to a dry pan and set over medium heat until they’re are lightly browned, giving them a shake every 2-3 minutes. When you can really start to smell them, they’re done.

Cook the pasta. With a minute or so left before the pasta reaches “al dente,” add the spinach. When the pasta is finished, scoop about a cup and a half of pasta water from the pot and then drain the noodles. Add the noodles to the bowl with the sauce and add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water and stir together. Add more pasta water until a creamy consistency is achieved. Top the pasta with the remaining lemon zest, the toasted pine nuts, and a few cracks of fresh pepper. Additional parmesan can be added, if desired.

Jalapeño Creamed Spinach

When I was growing up, vegetables were three things: plentiful, cheap, and usually canned. So, on the occasional night when my mom could be seen defrosting a tiny square box in the microwave and wringing it’s contents out over the sink, it meant creamed spinach was on the menu and that felt fancy. Despite it’s name, though, the closest my mother’s version came to any kind of dairy was a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. That’s it. Just those two ingredients. Still, we all happily ate it and will do the same until our dying days. That’s family.

I first had a version of jalapeño creamed spinach a few years ago at Brasa, a rotisserie restaurant in Minneapolis that serves Creole-inspired comfort food. Everything I’ve ever eaten at Brasa has been delicious and tends to be the place we hit up for dinner as soon as the weather starts to turns warm and the patio opens. Their variety of braised and pulled meats is small – two chicken options, a pork, and a beef – but they’re done so exquisitely with mouthwatering rubs like garlic and lime. Their sides hold their own, too, and rival the meats for greatness, but if you’re asking me, nothing touches their creamed spinach with jalapeño. It is absurdly good.

After the first time I had it, I stopped at the grocery store on the way home (like a creamy-spinach-fueled lunatic) to pick up the ingredients I thought would help me to recreate it the following night. That first time, I came close, but it took some tweaking and then some cues from Laurie Colwin’s version in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen before the recipe developed to where it is now, which is at tasty. Yet, somehow, with all of my trial and error (and we happily ate every single “error”), it fell out of my rotation. That was until I saw Andrew Zimmern mention Brasa on Twitter this week and I was swiftly transported back to the night I made this final version and Bear finished the leftovers before they had even cooled enough to be refrigerated. (Side note: The photo above is actually from that very night, before we dug in! I discovered it in my online recipe file when I went to find the recipe today. Vintage Femme Fraîche, right there!)

This is creamed spinach the way it should be made; with milk, cheese, and butter. It’s rich, but the jalapeños cut through the heaviness of it in such a way that I can’t imagine them not being there. That vinegary, spicy bite aside the soft bitterness of the spinach, and the lusciousness of the creamy cheese sauce, is comfort food done right. If you’re looking for traditional, delicate creamed spinach, this is not that recipe. This is the side dish that threatens to outdo the whole meal, dessert included.

Jalapeño Creamed Spinach
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

Ingredients:
2 – 10oz. packages of chopped, frozen spinach, squeezed dry (reserve at least 1 cup of spinach liquid)
1/4 cup of yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic diced finely or put through a garlic press
1 stick of butter, divided in half
2 Tablespoonx of olive oil
2 Tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup of evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
3/4 teaspoon of celery salt
6oz. monterey jack cheese, cubed
1 – 4oz. can of diced jalapeños, drained (substitute canned green chiles for less spice)
1 1/2 cups of panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons of parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350°. Defrost the spinach and drain in a collander over a bowl, squeezing it into a tight ball until barely any liquid remains. In a medium-sized pot, melt 1/2 the stick of butter and add the flour, stirring constantly over medium heat until combined, forming a roux. Allow to cook for a solid minute in order to remove the raw flour flavor. Remove the roux from the pan and set aside. Add the olive oil to the pot and follow with the onions and garlic. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Allow the onions and the garlic to sweat and soften before adding the roux back in and allowing to combine for a minute or so. Next, add the spinach liquid and evaporated milk, slowly, whisking constantly until the mixture becomes smooth and thickens. Add the monterey jack cheese, the black pepper, and celery salt, and allow to combine until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Once the sauce has thickened, add the diced jalapeños and the spinach. The mixture should, at this point, be the consistency of a thick cheese sauce, like a spinach artichoke dip, and your spoon should follow it around the pot with little resistance. If it seems too thick, add another tablespoon or two of the remaining spinach liquid or evaporated milk.

Pour the spinach into a greased baking dish and set aside. In a small bowl, microwave the remaining 4T of butter until melted. Add a dash or two of black pepper, and the garlic powder; combine. Pour in the panko crumbs and the parmesan cheese and toss together, allowing the bread crumbs to absorb the butter mixture. Top the spinach with the bread crumbs and place in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until the spinach is hot and the top has browned slightly. Check the dish occasionally to make sure the crumbs are not browning too quickly and if so, cover with foil until the dish is heated through and is slightly bubbly at the edges. When finished, remove the spinach from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Italian Wedding Soup

There is something so comforting and yet energizing about Italian Wedding Soup. It’s warm and hearty, but not weighed down with creams and cheeses. Not that there is anything wrong with cream and cheese, of course. This is the kind of food, though, that you feel strengthened by. Dark, leafy spinach – so rich in vitamins – layered throughout clean, flavorful chicken stock. Carrots cut into little jewels, nestled around light, bite-sized pork meatballs. Simple. Bright. Nourishing. Nothing, in fact, like an Italian wedding!* It’s all the things a good end-of-winter soup should be.

I make these little pork meatballs the same way I would meatballs for spaghetti with the exception being that these are made exclusively of ground pork, as opposed to pork and beef, and are studded with fresh tarragon. The latter of which, with parsley too, makes the soup lightly herby in flavor and so aromatic. Usually, I’d suggest cooking the noodles separately and adding them on a bowl-by-bowl basis in order to not have them lose any and all texture as the soup sits, but because I lessen the amount of noodles called for in this recipe and, coupled with the small size of the pasta, this extra step is unnecessary. I promised simple, didn’t I?

*I say this about Italian weddings as a born-and-raised Italian-American femme from New Jersey. My Super Sweet Sixteen happened for all of my cousins out on Long Island and then happened again when they all got married. As a result, you could say I know my way around smoke machines, stretch Humvees, and Venetian tables.


Italian Wedding Soup
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Italian Wedding Soup; Serves 6

Ingredients:
For the meatballs
1lb ground pork (feel free to sub ground chicken, turkey, or even beef)
2/3 cup dried Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
3 Tablespoons milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt & pepper

For the soup
2 tablespoons good olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 cup minced yellow onion
1 cup carrots, diced
3/4 cup celery, diced
10 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 cup small pasta such as rings, tubetini or stars
12 ounces baby spinach
Lemon zest for serving, if desired

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350° F.

For the meatballs, place the ground pork, bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, tarragon, parmesan, milk, egg, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and combine gently with your clean hands – this is the best method! Taking a teaspoon of the mixture at a time, form 1 to 1-1/4 inch meatballs and drop onto a sheet pan that has been lined with parchment. You should have about 40 meatballs when you’ve finished. Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through. If you’d like, you can stop here and finish the soup within 3 days or go on to making it immediately.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large stock pot. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook until they’ve softened, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, add the chicken stock and wine, bringing the mixture to a boil. Add the pasta to the simmering broth and cook until the pasta is tender. Add the meatballs to the soup and stir in the spinach, allowing the soup to cook for another 2 minutes, or until the spinach is wilted. Check the taste for salt and pepper.

When soup is finished, ladle into bowls and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, some additional parmesan, and a light sprinkle of lemon zest. Serve with warm, crusty bread, if desired. As with all soups, this is great on day one and amazing a day or two later, reheated.