I'm watching the lovely Nigella Lawson on Food Network. She just said, "I love puttering around in the kitchen making bowls of food that make life that little bit sweeter." She read my mind.
My birthday is Sunday, but since most people work on Monday, I decided to cook a casual Friday night dinner for five close friends. I even opened a bottle of wine, although I struggled, as usual, to remove the freakin' cork.
Not one of them showed. I'd been stood up! After a few minutes of stomping around my kitchen, thinking, "How can they have the AUDACITY to abandon me?" I actually giggled: my food sure looked good, and I'd get to enjoy this delicious feast with zero interruptions.
I lit a candle and decided to celebrate myself...by myself...with a stellar dinner, a cake-scented candle and a mellow glass of zinfandel. Here's what I cooked:
Butternut Squash Pappardelle with Pignoli Nuts
Serves 4, or makes 4 fabulous meals for those who fly solo.
1 bag pappardelle pasta (I suggest Trader Joe's organic whole-wheat pappardelle)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups fresh or frozen butternut squash
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tbsp agave nectar or maple syrup
sea salt and pepper as desired
pecorino romano cheese
Here's how it goes:
a) Add your squash to a hot pan with a tablespoon of olive oil. If squash is frozen, add 1/2 cup of water. Cook on high heat until squash softens, then lower the heat. Keep stirring with your wooden spoon to make sure it doesn't stick to pan. Add cinnamon, nutmeg and agave nectar/maple syrup. Set aside and leave on low heat until pasta is done.
b) Boil your pappardelle for about 6 minutes in salted water. You want the pasta al dente (please), not soggy.
c) Using tongs, transfer your cooked pasta to the pan with a bit of the pasta water so the pappardelle don't stick together.
d) Stir pappardelle into squash mixture, drizzle more olive oil, grate pecorino romano cheese and sprinkle toasted pignoli nuts over the top.
You get sweetness from the squash, a buttery flavor from the pignoli nuts, and a savory taste from the cheese. Perfect harmony.
Before blowing out my candle, I served myself a wine glass full of whipped cream and strawberries.
I ate the rest of the pasta for (yes) breakfast this morning. Perfect comfort food without all the fat! I didn't use a stitch of butter.
Here's why this dish is good enough to celebrate you:
Not only does it taste luxurious and wonderful, but butternut squash packs all kinds of benefits for your immune system and heart. It's also full of dietary fiber.
The whole-wheat pappardelle is loaded with protein (11g per serving as opposed to only 7 for a white pasta), fiber, and carbohydrates (those will really help me with my butt-kickin' weight training and cardio!)
The benefits of olive oil are already a given. Good for your heart, good for your skin, good for your mood!
Cinnamon helps to lower blood sugar, so it's ideal for diabetics.
Agave nectar, as opposed to sugar, is low glycemic: it keeps your blood sugar at a stable level. But the rich, sweet taste is unparalleled--oh so comforting.
Pignoli (pine) nuts: When you look at the label, the fat and calorie content probably makes you think "STAY AWAY!" But what you might not know is that pignolis are high in B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, manganese and zinc. They may even help suppress appetite. When used in moderation, they're fine!
This is the ultimate "thank you" dinner to your body for keeping you alive and well!
Centro Restaurant & Bar 1435 Post Rd. Fairfield, CT 06410 (203) 255-1210
Last weekend, Mom and I sauntered into Centro not knowing what to expect. Wondering whether we could get a table at 7:30 on a Saturday night, we searched for someone to scribble our name on the waiting list. Mission accomplished. While we stood in the take-out foyer, the sight of the food in the glass showcase—the orecchiette pasta caked with coagulated pink sauce next to the chicken florentine with its yellowy twinge—made me cringe. Think pot-luck picnic lunch left in 90-degree heat for eight hours. I know...I made the same face you're making right now.
Here's the good news: The food you get when you sit down is actually worth celebrating with a fat glass of merlot. So is the inviting atmosphere: mustard-colored walls, pine branches draping over high arcs, yellow ochre lighting...Okay, so I wasn't transported to Tuscany, but for Downtown Fairfield, I couldn't complain.
Served in a warm, honey-colored bowl, the roughly-chopped fennel with grapefruit, oranges, and candied walnuts in a light, citrus-basil vinaigrette was prime pick as a starter. It doesn't get any better than bitter grapefruit, sweet orange, and salty-sweet walnuts charged with the freshness of basil. A flavor explosion that had me spooning out the remaining droplets of vinaigrette. The fennel could have been more delicately sliced for a more ethereal feel on the tongue, but I could understand the whole rustic quality they attempted to convey. Or were they simply pressed for time? Either way, my taste buds couldn't tell.
For dinner, I ordered the Spinach-Goat Cheese Salad, which would have been even more delightful had the waitress heeded my kind request for dressing on the side. I wasn't going to sit there and grunt; I was too hungry. Nonetheless, I was pleased with the fine combination of baby spinach leaves glossed with a light balsamic vinaigrette, with the tangy-fruity combination of sun dried tomatoes (too thinly julienned and a bit too oily), roasted red peppers and marinated eggplant (again, a bit oily). But the prize of this plate was the lushly warm, creamy goat cheese encased in a Panko breadcrumb crust. The crackling sound of my fork breaking through the delicate ball rendered a pavlovian response: I drooled.
Mom, who changed her mind three times and almost made me rip the menu out of her hand in a hypoglycemic rage, finally ordered the thin crust pizza Margherita. This was probably the best $10 she'd spent in a long time. Despite the sallow, starchy tomatoes on top, the supple yet crispy crust, garlic-charged mozzarella and freshly chopped basil = total redemption. Perfect for two to share with a salad and a few glasses of wine.
I left Centro well-sated and serene, ready to flip off my boots, flop on my couch and giggle at Lucille Ball stomping on grapes through the TV screen.
I'd go back again. For sure. I just hope they clear out the day-old pasta in the front foyer. At least for the sake of those who judge a restaurant within seconds after they enter it.
Check out their Web site, www.centroristorante.com, for more details. They do catering and have a reasonable To-Go Special: Homemade pasta & sauce with Caesar salad, brick-oven bread and marinated olives...$15.95 for 2 and under $30 for 4. That sounds like a delicious deal to me. If you happen to try it before I do, let me know the verdict!