October 30, 2007

Brown-butter, Baby

Well, the first frosts of the year have arrived. And while I’m happy – elated, actually -- finally to see some colder weather, it’s hard to come to grips with what that frost means: bye-bye fresh herbs. Walking my son out to the bus stop this morning, I saw black, shriveled up leaves on a plant that just a few weeks ago I used to make the last of the summer pesto.

It’s really an awful feeling to know that I can no longer walk out to my patio with a pair of scissors and snip off a mitt full of thyme, some long threads of oregano or tarragon, a few petals of basil, or a small sampling of sage.

What the frost means is that how we cook, or what we’re able to cook, changes dramatically. Combined with end of our CSA season next week – the topic for a whole ‘nother post of dread that I’m nowhere near mentally prepared to start writing – no longer can we make decisions on the fly about how we’re going to sauce that pasta, season that chicken, make that vinaigrette.

It means having to know exactly what you want to cook, because the herbs we have at our disposal are limited to what we remembered to buy at the grocery store. And that assumes, of course, that the herbs in those little plastic packs are actually still good by the time I want to use them.

The cup-half-full folks might say that the situation forces you to step out of the usual routine, use the abundance of spices that are available even in most standard grocery stores these days to make meals you’ve never made before, to experiment with new cuisines.

And that’s true. But that’s something we already do. It doesn’t make up for the immediacy of stepping out my back door to pick some mint and cilantro, dice it up, whisk it together with some oil, salt, pepper, or other herbs and use it as a rub on some chicken thighs. It doesn’t compensate for those missing flavors that for many months now have been available on a whim.

And so it was, with what ended up being the last of our back-patio sage, I made a real favorite meal of ours – and perhaps the quickest and easiest of any dinners we make. All it takes is some quality ravioli or tortellini (especially if it’s stuffed with pumpkin or butternut squash or maybe gorgonzola, which is what we had last night) that you only need to boil in water for 10 minutes or so to cook through, a good bit of butter, and, of course, some fresh sage.

Ravioli in a Brown-Butter Sage Sauce

  • 1 lb of ravioli, tortellini, similar “pocket”-type pasta that only needs to be boiled in water to cook
  • 4-5 tablespoons of butter
  • 6-8 sage leaves, torn in half
  • Salt and pepper
  • Big splash of balsamic vinegar
  • Grated parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat, let it go for a few minutes, stirring it a little to get it to foam. Add the sage, salt, and pepper and stir; cook until the butter starts to brown a bit. Remove pan from the heat, add a good sized splash (a splash, not a guzzling pour) of balsamic vinegar, and add the pasta to the pan, toss and coat, and then add the parmesan, toss and coat some more.

I’ve seen recipes that call for adding lemon juice at the end – which I would advise against if using balsamic -- or topping the pasta with some toasted walnuts.

UPDATE: While the basil quickly succumbed to the frost, and the sage is not fairing very well, the tarragon, mint, and oregano are still hangin' in there. In fact, I used some tarragon last night in an excellent tomato soup. Recipe soon.

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