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Splendid Table: Pasta-asparagus dish mellow, tasteful

April 13, 2010|By LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER / Scripps Howard News Service

Dear Lynne: My wife and I debate constantly about whether you should preheat the oven. Can you give us the right answer? -- Joseph from Georgia

Dear Joseph: Not to embarrass either of you, but what an invitation this is to fallen cakes, gooey biscuits, overdone meat and all sorts of culinary calamity.

The right answer: Always preheat the oven for 20 minutes, or however long it takes to reach the temperature called for. And always use an oven thermometer to be sure the temperature is where you want it, since many of our ovens go out of calibration.

Dear Lynne: Whenever I order Chilean sea bass, my sister goes nuts. We call her the Green Queen, and she says I am helping to wipe the fish off the map. Is this true? Am I guilty? -- A Picked-On Kid Brother in Chicago


Dear Kid Brother: Sometimes this business of picking the right food is like tiptoeing through a minefield. You have to get beneath the surface to know what you need to avoid. You don't have to wear a sign around your neck saying, "I Wiped Out Chilean Sea Bass," but you should stop ordering it.

The easiest way to know which fish to eat and which fish not to eat from an ecological or contamination point of view is to check out Part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch collects the latest research and ecological reports on endangered fish and synthesizes them into easy-to-check buying guides. The site also links to the Environmental Defense Fund, which monitors contamination levels in fish.

Lamentably, your beloved Chilean sea bass has three strikes against it, according to those sources. The fish is endangered because it grows slowly and reproduces late in life. Chilean sea bass is fished by many vessels that harvest seafoods illegally and fish in ways that endanger other animals. And the fish has been found to have high levels of mercury.

Here is what you can enjoy that tastes similar to Chilean sea bass, but is not bad for the fish, the environment or us -- try striped bass, black cod, Pacific halibut, mahi mahi and a favorite of mine, Arctic char.

Dear Lynne: I would appreciate a recipe that combines asparagus and pasta. Do you have one I could use as a sort of one-dish dinner? -- Diana in Wilmington

Dear Diana: From the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, this dish is an unusual treatment of a ragu sauce and of asparagus and pasta. As other vegetables come into season, you could substitute them for the asparagus.


o Serves 3 to 4 as a main dish; 6 as a first course.

Cook to Cook: Using a deep saucepan instead of a shallow skillet slows down the browning of the chicken and vegetables because moisture evaporates more slowly in it. This technique mellows the sauce. Do take your time and cook the chicken until it's a rich golden brown.

1/2 each of a medium carrot, celery stalk and red onion
2 thin slices cacciatora, or other good-quality salami
1 tightly packed teaspoon Italian parsley
2 tablespoons good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf

1 boned and skinned chicken breast (about 5 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 boned chicken thighs (about 5 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Generous pinch freshly ground nutmeg
3/4 cup each milk and Mother's Broth, or low-sodium, canned broth
3/4 pound dried tagliatelle or fettuccine pasta
6 quarts salted, boiling water

1/2 pound pencil-slim asparagus, trimmed of tough stems
1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Mince down the vegetables, salami and parsley into tiny pieces. Heat oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium high. Stir in the vegetable blend and bay leaf. Saute to pale gold, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add chicken, reduce heat to medium, and cook until brown, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the wine and tomato paste. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until wine is evaporated. Add nutmeg, milk and broth. Cover completely and simmer gently 30 minutes. Chicken should be tender and sauce should be rich and deeply flavored. If necessary, intensify flavors by simmering a few minutes uncovered. Season to taste.

Meanwhile, steam the asparagus in a metal basket set in a large pot with 1 inch boiling water. Cover and cook about 2 minutes until asparagus is firm and underdone. Remove and slice it on an angle into 1/2-inch pieces, separating tips. Set the asparagus aside. Time the pasta to be ready when the sauce is done. Cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until tender, yet firm to the bite. Drain in a colander. Toss with sauce and asparagus pieces, except tips. Turn into a hot serving bowl, fold in cheese and scatter with asparagus tips. Serve hot.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table," American Public Media's weekly national show for people who love to eat, and is the co-author of "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories and Opinions."

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