Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Must have to do with the fancy lemons

It might be difficult to imagine, but working in Akron, Ohio, has its perks. One of them is the relatively low cost of living. Another is my office's proximity to West Point Market: a mere 1.5 miles of road separates me from a riot of gourmet, fresh, hard-to-find ingredients. The wine and cheese departments alone make my eyes cross as I gaze upon their bounty, my tongue wagging out of the side of my mouth in extreme anticipation. The best and most frightening part of this geography: I can go there nearly any time. It almost feels dangerous, spending 40 hours each week sitting only moments away from a 4-oz. chocolate bar that costs $8 or a $16-per-pound Spanish sheep's-milk cheese. It is a cross I bear.

Of course, I know that there are many gourmet food emporia in many locales around Northeast Ohio; indeed, the State; indeed, the nation. But this one is so good and so close, and thus particularly inspiring to me as I seek the best ingredients I can afford in the service of my daily cooking adventures. I have made many an unreasonably expensive purchase there -- $14 for Marcona almonds; $11.99 for vanilla extract; $14.99 for white tea. But each time I walk back through the parking lot to my car, lugging one single paper grocery bag that's not even filled to the top yet still cost me $63.74, I brim with excitement over the meals to come, the culinary treasures contained within.

Sometimes I go to West Point Market for the cheese. The area that holds their incredible international selection is the perfect place to dream up an astounding cheese course for your guests, which might include, oh, I don't know, a Sardinian Pecorino, a Murray River cheddar, the King Island Dairy Roaring Forties Blue and some Istara Ossau-Iraty. Plus, for every $60 you spend on cheese (and, trust me, it doesn't take long to get there), you get a free half-pound of your choice. So you know I wait until I'm at the $60 mark to get a taste of the really expensive stuff!

Sometimes I go to West Point Market for the wine, though I must admit that I rarely stray from the Australian reds, particularly the Peter Lehmann selections. (Husband and I visited Peter Lehmann's Barossa Valley winery on our honeymoon, so his reds not only taste delightful, but remind us of the amazing time we spent in his cellar door sipping the Black Queen.) If you were so inclined, however, your head could be spinning with wine possibilities -- and that's before you have anything to drink.

Sometimes I go to West Point Market for the international candy aisle and the international candy aisle alone. Can you imagine? Cadbury Crunchie, Haribo Gummy Bears and Choco Liebniz all in one place. If they were somehow able to import Tim Tams, my head would explode.

Sometimes I go to West Point Market just to browse and look for inspiration. There's no better place to do it; walking through the aisles is like walking through the pages of a beautifully illustrated or photographed cookbook. Come across some black bean flour? Put it in the cart. I'm sure there's something magnificent I can do with that. Annatto seeds? Clearly I need these for some to-be-determined yet sure-to-be-delicious application. Tiny, perfect, tightly furled heads of radicchio? I have never seen purple look so pretty, and I have never been so excited about a bitter vegetable. Ring it up for me, please, trendy Akron teenager.

And sometimes I go to West Point Market when I've come across a new recipe that calls for a specialty ingredient that I might not be able to locate in my regular grocery store. These are the trips that are most satisfying of all -- if only because I have a "reason" to be there (as opposed to dropping hard-earned cash on Australian candy).

Take Meyer lemons.

Meyer lemons are a lovely mix of lemon and orange: tart but not too tart, sweet but not too sweet. The Goldilocks of citrus. The peel leans toward orange, but the flesh inside is a bright, summery burst of yellow. Just the thing to enliven a January night in Ohio, when the wind gusts reach 50 miles per hour and the five-day forecast includes a lot of little cartoon snowflakes.

Though not the rarest of fruits, sometimes Meyer lemons are a bit difficult to find. However, West Point always has them. Thus, when I found a recipe for whole wheat pasta with Meyer lemons and pistachios, I knew just where to go for the signature ingredient. The citrus in this dish does a wonderful job of waking up the spaghetti, which, as you know, can be quite the hearty and heavy carbohydrate when laden with a rich tomato or cream sauce. In addition to the Meyer lemons and pistachios, this recipe includes no small measure of lush, peppery arugula, as well as a handful of almonds -- both of which add pleasant contrast to the sprightly saltiness of the dish.

Though I excel at tomato sauce, when I'm not in the mood for tomato sauce, this, more often than not, is the pasta recipe for which I reach. It feels lighter; it feels healthier; it feels, exotic, even. Must have to do with the fancy lemons.


Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

1/2 t. sea salt

1/2 c. shelled unsalted pistachios

1/4 c. whole unsalted raw almonds

1 shallot, cut into a few pieces

1-2 Meyer lemons (about 5-6 oz., if you go over a few ounces it's no big deal), cut into 6-8 pieces and seeded

3 T. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

14.5 oz. whole-wheat spaghetti (I like Barilla Plus)

2 c. packed baby arugula

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread pistachios and almonds on a dry baking sheet. Toast in the oven until fragrant, about 7 minutes. Keep an eye on them -- they will burn very quickly. Transfer the nuts to a plate and let them cool completely.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In the meantime, pulse the pistachios, almonds and shallot in a food processor until finely chopped, but not a paste. Transfer this mixture to a large bowl. Without cleaning the food processor, finely chop the Meyer lemon -- it will resemble a pulp when it's finished. (Yes, you are using the entire lemon, but for the seeds. Rind and all; trust me, it works.) Add the lemons to the pistachio, almond and shallot mixture and stir to combine. Stir in 2 T. of the olive oil.

Add the pasta to the boiling water; cook until al dente, according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta and reserve about 1 c. of the cooking liquid. I do this by placing a mesh strainer over a Pyrex liquid measuring cup; I find it easiest for measuring and pouring the cooking liquid, as needed. Toss the pasta with the pistachio mixture until coated; add about 1/2 c. of the cooking liquid and stir until the sauce coats the pasta. If the sauce doesn't feel "loose" enough, feel free to add more of the cooking water. You might very well need to do this, so the sauce isn't too thick.

Stir in arugula, allowing the heat of the pasta to wilt it slightly. Add sea salt, the remaining 1 T. olive oil and black pepper. Drizzle with just a little bit of extra olive oil and serve while hot.

Serves 4. This is another one of those dishes that is even better the next day. Note: if, for any reason, you use salted shelled pistachios in this recipe, omit the 1/2 t. sea salt. Unless you are like my sister and require a salt lick near you 24 hours a day.

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