Penne with Asparagus, Smoked Mozzarella, and Cherry Tomatoes
This quick weeknight pasta dish is a delicious and elegant first course for any occasion. Be sure to use a good quality smoked mozzarella because it is the main ingredient of the dish. Smoked mozzarella has a lot of advantages because it lasts for a long time and can be added to sandwiches, soups, stuffing, and pasta. It's a great addition to anything that you'd like to enrich and enliven.
1/8 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
16 asparagus stalks, steamed until tender, and sliced for 1-minute
8 ounces smoked mozzarella, cubed
8 basil leaves
1 pound penne rigate
Heat 1/2 of the olive oil in a large wide skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook just until it releases its aroma and begins to turn blonde colored. Add cherry tomatoes and asparagus and stir to coat.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. As soon as water boils, add a pinch of salt. Add penne, stir, lower heat to medium low, and cook for 10-13 minutes, or until al dente.
Drain the pasta. Add pasta and a few tablespoons of the pasta water to the vegetable mixture. Add in smoked mozzarella and toss well to combine and melt mozzarella. Once mozzarella is melted, tear the basil leaves into the dish and stir well to combine.
Drizzle the remaining half of the olive oil over the pasta to add shine and extra flavor to the dish.
Plate immediately and serve hot.
Italian Cooking Tip:
You can use smaller pieces of fresh asparagus if you prefer. Just trim the stalks and cut 1-inch pieces on the bias and add into the recipe - sauté until tender before going to the next step.
Cantaloupe Mousse with Strega Liqueur
Nothing compares to the rich, musky aroma of fresh, locally grown melon. Interestingly, the English word "cantaloupe" comes from the Italian Cantalupo, a papal seat near Rome, and the first place in Europe where cantaloupe was grown after being introduced from the Persian Empire.
This dessert is very easy to prepare and can be transformed into to a family style recipe by adjusting the sugar content and omitting the alcohol if preferred. I love the style, simplicity, and pure, seasonal flavors of this recipe so much that I often make it for television cooking demos. Keep in mind that this recipe benefits from being refrigerated overnight – so it is perfect for entertaining.
1 pound fresh cantaloupe flesh, cubed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons strega liqueur, divided
4 8x3-inch gelatin sheets diluted in enough cold water to cover
Place the melon in a food processor, blender, or juicer - add the lemon juice, sugar, and 1 tablespoon of the liqueur. Pulse on and off until you have a liquid puree which is completely uniform.
In a medium saucepan add the gelatin mixture and the remaining tablespoon of liqueur and allow it to melt over medium heat.
Add the remaining tablespoon of liqueur and the cantaloupe puree. Stir well from the bottom and sides to avoid the gelatin from crystallizing.
Transfer the mixture to 6 (2 ounce) ramekins or cups and cool to room temperature.
Refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours or overnight.
To serve, carefully unmold the containers with the help of a butter knife and invert onto a serving dish. Serve with the sauce of your choice, chocolate, and lady fingers, if desired.
Sommelier's Tip: Strega is an Italian herbal liqueur that has been produced since 1860 in Benevento, Italy. The presence of beautiful and distinctive saffron – and 70 other herbal ingredients including mint and fennel make it the perfect partner for the flavor of cantaloupe. The word Strega means "witch" in Italian, because the combination of 80 proof potency and scores of powerful herbs make it a recipe to be reckoned with.
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