Sunday, January 2, 2011

Asparagus & Basil Spaghetti

Any amateur chef teaching herself is bound to make a few errors, which this blog has certainly spotlighted from time to time. However, I always try to look on the bright side of my errors, even when I can't creatively save my dishes. Today, though, I had a difficult time saving an easy-to-make, hard-to-enjoy veggie meal.

My boyfriend gave me a cookbook, Pasta, and I was eager to try a new recipe out for us on my day off. Most vegetarians learn quickly that the majority of our population has a very narrow view of meatless food, believing it all to be boring salads, which is, of course, one thing I am trying to disprove with this blog. However, Pasta's very limited vegetarian section mostly featured recipes I didn't have the exact ingredients for, so I chose "Spaghetti with Charred Asparagus, Lemon, and Basil." Just by looking at the recipe, I thought it sounded rather bland--obviously written by someone with a limited scope of vegetarian cuisine--and I wondered if I was going to be able to impress my omnivore boyfriend at all with this meat-free, and seemingly tasteless, meal.

More often than one would think, it's actually very feasible to substitute frozen or canned vegetables in recipes that ask for fresh produce. However, I committed a huge lapse in judgment using canned asparagus spears today, and, irritatingly, now that I reflect on today's meal, I knew deep down--even before I started cooking--that it would be a bad idea not to use fresh asparagus. Alas, I was so anxious to try something from this new cookbook without having to visit the grocery store, and the recipe did not specify if the spears needed to be fresh, canned, or frozen. Here is the problem with using canned asparagus. It's already cooked, and it's packed with preserving juices, so it's already tender. So broiling it until it's "charred and tender," as the book instructed, was an impossible task, and the extra virgin olive oil I used in this feat just made the asparagus soggy. You can't "char" canned asparagus--you can just, well, ruin it, which is basically what I did. By the time I stirred it in with the cheese, pasta, and seasoning, it just kind of crumbled soggily to the point where it looked like additional seasoning instead of the fresh, straight, well-cooked spears that would have saved this dish.

To try to repair the blandness of this recipe, I upped the basil, pepper, and garlic, and also added in oregano, Italian seasoning, and just a hint of paprika. I also stirred in sliced mozzarella (in addition to the Parmesan) at the very end, to prevent the cheese from getting overcooked. (Doing an internet search later, I found that many similar asparagus/spaghetti recipes use mozzarella in place of Parmesan.)

The results of this recipe were not completely disastrous, apart from, of course, the lack of visible asparagus, or asparagus that you can actually taste. I added in some cold chunks of fresh tomato to liven it up, which was an excellent decision. Apart from the tomatoes, though, this literally was like eating creamy spaghetti (with some very well-done seasoning, though, I must add). I couldn't taste or see the asparagus, so DO NOT USE ANYTHING BUT FRESH GREEN PRODUCE IF YOU MAKE THIS!! The recipe actually says you can substitute the asparagus with broccoli florets, which I think, with the heavy amount of basil it calls for, would not be a good idea. Asparagus and basil go together much better.

Would I make this again? Well, put it this way: I need to have the memory of that soggy asparagus completely leave my mind first! Hey, every cook makes a faux pas here and there, and, usually, our mistakes are repairable, or at least, cover-up-able! However, this mistake-in-a-can was just beyond saving, although I certainly tried. I actually tried eating this with spaghetti sauce, too, and, astonishingly, doing so made me realize my spaghetti dish actually could get worse! This is truly an example when spaghetti and spaghetti sauce are not a match made in heaven.

The reheat value on this recipe, by the way, is nonexistent. Fresh from the stovetop, it was tolerable; six hours later later and a minute and a half in the microwave, it was definitely not.

This isn't to knock Pasta, though. The cookbook is a great little manual and contains a variety of ways to prepare different grain-based meals, but this dish suffered from two big errors: (1.) The generally bland nature of vegetarian recipes in omnivore cookbooks, and (2.) My use of canned asparagus. However, there are nearly twenty recipes in the vegetarian section of Pasta, and many in the meat-based sections are easily adaptable to a vegan diet (we often use Morning Star Farms's soy ground beef for cooking). I'll just have to remember to make a more comprehensive grocery list next time I visit the produce section--and keep the pantry door closed.

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