Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer Menu #1 (Pasta)

Everyone loves summer because you can go outside!
I volunteer occasionally with Cooking Matters in Minnesota. Cooking Matters is a nutrition education program where participants learn by cooking. Participants learn to prepare basic recipes from a chef, receive a nutrition education lesson, and then share a meal together.

Right now I am working with a group of volunteers to put together a collection of seasonal menus that we can put online. I am working on summer. Hopefully we can develop it into a "cook along" next summer.

I am responsible for developing three complete, nutritious, seasonal menus. Here is the first of the three. It is a basically pasta in a white sauce and I have added suggestions for substitutions so that the menu can be made seasonally in both the early and late summer (and hopefully in between!)

Early summer pasta menu - this menu is delicious any time, but several of the ingredients will be at their peak in June.

Spinach pasta bake
Green salad
Strawberry shortcake

Seasonal ingredients: spinach, lettuce, strawberries, you can likely find these items at the farmers market in June

Spinach Pasta Bake
approximately 4 servings

1 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced or chopped into very small pieces
1 tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup low fat milk
1 tbsp dried basil (or more to taste)
1 cup cottage cheese
¼ cup parmesan cheese
2 to 3 cups dried pasta, any shape you like - I usually use about three handfuls
1 bunch of fresh spinach - this is about one pound, and de-thawed frozen is also delicious

Directions -
Prepare pasta according to package directions

heat the butter over low heat until it melts. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds. Add the flour and stir for another 30 seconds. Slowly pour in the milk and continue stirring until the sauce begins to thicken - This usually takes between three and five minutes or about as long as the sauce takes to start to boil. I don’t usually stir the entire time, but enough to keep the milk from burning or getting stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add cottage cheese and basil and simmer another minute or two, until the cheese seems to be melted and incorporated into the sauce. Add the pasta and the spinach and pour into a casserole dish.  Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

While the pasta is baking is a great time to prep the dessert and a salad.

There is no specific recipe that I would suggest for the salad. I usually use whatever type of lettuce I have on hand, some chopped carrots, and toss with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and one of balsamic vinegar.

Strawberry shortcake:
I have a recipe for biscuits that I really like to use for strawberry shortcake but all of my cookbooks are in storage! 
It has lavender and walnuts in it. I will post the recipe in September, but that is likely too late for strawberry short cake. But you could use any biscuit recipe you like. Top with washed and thinly sliced fresh fruit and I like to top mine with plain yoghurt.

Adapting for late summer - Come late July and August fruits and vegetables that prefer slightly cooler weather may become less available, more expensive, and possibly lower quality since they have to be shipped longer distances. The above menu can be easily adapted.

Substitute fresh basil for spinach - fresh basil is often very expensive in grocery stores, but in August it grows like a weed and you can get huge bunches fairly inexpensively at the farmers market or your own garden if you have one. Since basil has a stronger flavor than spinach you may want to use only half of a standard "bunch" in the pasta dish.

Don’t bake the pasta - July and August can be very hot, and turning on the over may be the last thing you want to do. You can make the sauce for the pasta over the stove and it is delicious even without being baked in the oven.

Instead of salad wash and cut up bell peppers into spears. Bell peppers are often very expensive, but again, in August they are prolific. The bright colors are both attractive and fun, and they are delicious raw.

Instead of making strawberry shortcake enjoy fresh melon - Strawberries prefer cooler nights so they don’t do as well in late July and August, additionally making the shortcake requires turning on the oven. But fresh melons such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew are at their peak!

Sauce variations:The sauce included in this recipe is VERY versatile. Here are some additional ways that I have used it, but there isn’t really any limit.

Change the spices - in the winter I often use a tablespoon of sage and one of rosemary instead of the basil.

Change the cheese - sometimes I put in a ½ cup of cheddar cheese and a tbsp of mustard with the cottage cheese and leave out the parmesan and basil

Change the vegetables - I mentioned spinach and fresh basil, but broccoli is also good, or later in the fall you can add pre cooked winter squash (such as butternut)  

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