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Potluck: Latest vacation leads to need for spaghetti recipe

I don’t know what you did to survive last winter, but I kept warm by planning a trip to any place where it doesn’t snow.

As I was Googling vacations in Spain, a fellow traveler I met in New Zealand emailed me. The letter read, “I’m planning a trip to the Mediterranean. Want to go?”

Duh. I couldn’t get my bags packed fast enough.

Unfortunately, I had to wait until the last week of July to fly to Barcelona to board a ship for a spectacular Mediterranean cruise that encompassed four countries, three seas and two weeks of free-style feasting.

I found Barcelona just as fascinating as you imagine it. I visited Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral, walked Las Ramblas (a tree-lined pedestrian mall that stretches almost a mile where I enjoyed paella, tapas and cava, an alcohol beverage similar to champagne) and toured FC Barcelona’s soccer stadium.

The Norwegian Spirit’s first port of call was Toulon, a city in southern France. There wasn’t much to check out but cathedrals, fountains and the Provencal market, but I relished a relaxing afternoon on the ship’s balcony watching the city’s residents go about their daily lives.

The ship next docked in Livorno, Italy, where I took a bus back to Pisa and Florence, two cities I had toured in 2009. This time I went inside the Duormo cathedral in Florence, walked along the Ponte Vecchio bridge and returned to my favorite little eatery for a scoop of coffee and chocolate chip gelato.

The next day, I was distraught to find scaffolding surrounding both the Trevi Fountain and Coliseum in Rome, so I cheered myself up with a little gelato and shopping. I also devoured an awesome tomato and mozzarella cheese sandwich.

The last time I visited Vatican City, Benedict was pope. It seemed strange to see souvenirs with the face of Pope Francis, but that didn’t distract me from relishing another visit to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Afterward, I had a scoop of vanilla gelato.

As my vacation companion toured Pompeii, I trekked alone to the Architectural Museum in Naples. It was an effort well rewarded. I had no idea all forms of pottery, pictures and mosaics from Pompeii are stashed there.

After a day at sea, the next stop was Mykonos, a charming island situated on the Aegean Sea, where I hiked rambling narrow streets looking for windmills and enjoyed authentic baklava.

Next it was off to Istanbul, where I toured the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and McDonald’s, where I drank a Coke to take the taste of lion’s milk, or raki, out of my mouth. The highlight of my city tour was the Grand Bazaar, where I shopped myself silly.

The next day, I toured Ephesus, an ancient city built in the 10th century B.C. and cited in the Book of Revelation. I also traveled high atop a mountain to visit the House of Virgin Mary, where Catholic pilgrims believe Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken by Saint John and lived until her assumption.

The next stop was Athens, Greece, where I climbed many slippery marble stops to the Acropolis and dined on tasty Greek food and drank local wine with a couple of local musicians.

The final port of call was Venice, where I shopped and ate what is supposed to be the best gelato (is there such a thing as bad gelato?) at al Todaro in St. Mark’s Square,

I stayed an extra day in Venice after the cruise ended because I couldn’t get an immediate flight back to Fort Smith. But that offered me a chance to discover a wonderful little Italian restaurant that served the best spaghetti I’ve ever eaten.

It wasn’t a perfect trip. My feet swelled from the sea air, and some strange rash formed on my legs. It didn’t help that granddaughter Madi suggested her ghost-white granny get a spray tan before the trip. After a couple of days of orange skin, the stuff turned tan but wore off my hands and face so I was two-tone for half the trip.

Then there’s the weight gain. As much as I walked on my vacation, I still managed to gain five pounds. Can I blame the buffet and three-course meals on the ship? The late night forays for ice cream with hot caramel sauce? Maybe it was all that gelato. Who knows?

I also got terrific jet lag when I returned home, and it took me three days to recover.

The minute the trip was over, two people asked me where I was going next.

Well, the trip pretty much completes my bucket list, but if we get another winter like the last one, who knows.

As I consumed my bowl of pasta with meat sauce in Venice, I vowed to myself to figure out how it was made. I Googled and Googled, and I figure it’s something like this.

Spaghetti With Sugo Di Carne

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 red onions, finely chopped

2 ribs celery, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped

1 pound lean ground beef

1 cup dry white wine

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup canned peeled whole tomatoes with juice (San Marzano is best)

Chili flakes

1 pound fresh or dried pasta

Parmesan cheese, for grating (optional)

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions, celery, carrot and parsley. Cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until tender, about 10 minutes.

As the vegetables cook slowly, they will perfume the kitchen; this is the moment to add the meat. Turn up the flame and stir in the beef, incorporating it well into the vegetables. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally and breaking up the beef with the wooden spoon, until the meat has released its water and begins to brown and stick to the bottom of the pan, 10 to 20 minutes.

Reduce the flame, add the wine and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook at a very low simmer for 30 minutes, until the meat starts to stick to the bottom of the pot. Discard any excess fat.

While the meat is cooking, puree the tomatoes. Place a food mill over a large bowl and pour in the tomatoes and ½ cup water. Grind the tomatoes, letting the puree fall into the bowl. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Add the tomato puree and about ¼ cup water to the sauce. Cover the pot and cook at a bare simmer over a medium flame, stirring every once and a while, for 3 hours more. The sauce is done when it is dense and the liquid is well reduced; it should be well combined and thick, but not dry. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. The sauce can be cooled, transferred to a container, covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen for a couple of weeks.

To serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions until just short of al dente. Warm about a cup of the sugo in a large skillet. You don’t need to drain the pasta in a colander — just use a large slotted spoon to transfer the pasta from the water to the sauce, with water still clinging to the pasta. Heat over medium-low heat, tossing the pasta gently, and let it finish cooking in the sauce. Spoon into warmed serving plates and top with grated Parmesan, if desired.

•••

A neighbor up the street, whom I have never met, wants a recipe.

“Do you know the guy with the garden?” asked next-door neighbor Bill. “He wants a recipe for eggplant casserole.”

“Great,” I told Bill. It’s what I love to do.

Of course, I know nothing about eggplant casserole. So I Googled.

Here is Emeril Lagasse’s recipe, which I found on the Food Network website. Forty-four reviewers give it five stars.

Eggplant Casserole

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound eggplant, cut into ½-inch dice

1 red pepper, cut into ½-inch dice

4 ribs celery, cut into ½-inch dice

1 onion, chopped into ½-inch dice

½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup heavy cream

1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs

Salt and pepper

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees.

In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. Add the eggplant and cook halfway through. Add red pepper, celery and onion and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until vegetables begin to wilt. Add the basil leaves. Remove from heat. Add Parmesan, cream, bread crumbs and salt and pepper. Toss to combine.

Place skillet in the oven and cook until heated through, about 20 minutes.

•••

If that’s too difficult, here’s a simpler recipe.

Easy Eggplant Casserole

1 small eggplant

½ pound bulk sausage

1 small onion, chopped

1 egg, well beaten

½ cup dry bread crumbs

1 tablespoon butter, melted

¼ cup cracker crumbs

Peel eggplant and cut into 1-inch cubes; cook in a small amount of boiling water for 10 minutes or until tender. Drain. Let cool slightly.

Cook sausage and onion until onion is tender and sausage is brown.

Combine eggplant, sausage mixture, egg and bread crumbs. Mix well and spoon into a greased 1-quart casserole. Combine butter and cracker crumbs; sprinkle over casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

•••

I ran across this recipe before I left on my trip. I figure I’d better share it before I forget it.

To-Die-For Pecan Bars

1 package (16.5 ounces) refrigerated snickerdoodle cookie dough (the flat sheet, not the roll)

½ cup heavy cream

1½ cups brown sugar

½ cup butter

1½ teaspoons vanilla

1½ cups confectioners’ sugar

½ cup pecan halves

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the cookie dough, in the single block just as it is packaged, into an 8x8-inch baking dish. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the edges are slightly brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, stir together the cream and brown sugar. Cut the butter into 6 cubes and add to the cream mixture. Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Boil for 2½ minutes.

Take the pan off the burner and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Gradually stir in the vanilla and confectioners’ sugar and until the mixture is smooth. Add the pecans and stir well. Pour the pecan topping over the cooled cookie. Place in refrigerator to set, about 1 hour. Cut into bars and serve.

Makes 16 bars.

Looking for a recipe? Have one you’d like to share? Write to Potluck, Times Record, P.O. Box 1359, Fort Smith, AR 72902. Email: jharshaw@swtimes.com.

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