My mother-in-law, Gwen, is an a-MAZ-ing cook. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, we can all muster up a great dish or two, but I’m talking truly amazing. I’m talking trained at the Cordon Bleu (when that meant something) like Julia Child and many other famous chefs. Every meal she has ever cooked for us has been transcendent, from Chateaubriand to grilled cheese.
Gwen is busy these days battling breast cancer, though I’m quite sure she’d rather be in the kitchen. She’s had a rough six months of treatment so far. She is one of the strongest women I know, proud and steadfast and determined, so I know who is going to win this battle!
I’m dedicating this week’s post to her as she is starting another round of treatment this week. Here are two of her simple but elegant recipes that everyone in our family has made dozens of times, has been passed on to friends and neighbors, prepared at dinner parties and taken to potlucks: Bowtie Pasta with Tomatoes Capers and Basil and Caesar Salad.
The ingredients of Gwen’s Caesar salad are simple, but don’t skimp. Buy the best quality of each that you can afford. And buy fresh. You will be amazed.
I realize this is an ongoing theme of mine, but a few years ago I set out on a quest for the perfect Caesar salad. Growing up, my mom had gotten her recipe from a local steak restaurant. In her Caesar salad, she would smash a garlic clove in a wooden bowl, toss it, mash the anchovies in salt, coddle an egg, whisk in olive oil, dry the romaine leaves individually between towels—it was quite a production. The dressing was very good, but far richer and more Worchestershiry than what’s common today. I will post it soon and you can compare and contrast for yourself.
For me, I like my Caesar dressing to be three things: garlicky, lemony and cheesy! And the salad is simple too: romaine lettuce, dressing and croutons. I prefer homemade croutons, and they’re really much easier to make than one might imagine. I use a very simple recipe of butter, garlic and a leftover baguette. Melt a stick of butter in a large saucepan, add two pressed cloves of garlic and toss in cubed stale bread pieces. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes, turning once. Voila! You have croutons. Of course you can add herbs or cheese in with the butter if you like. And yes, for you observant types out there, I did forget to top my salad with croutons (here’s a pic to prove it!). I made a fresh batch and threatened any who tried to steal them. (The last batch I made disappeared before they ever got on a salad!)
Anyway, back to the Caesar dressing…where was I…oh yes, lemon and garlic! Of course.
This recipe hits the mark, though Gwen took it over the top with the addition of bacon (genius) and crumbled gorgonzola cheese (perfect)!
Like I said before, don’t skimp. For the Parmesan, you must absolutely stay away from the pre-shredded stuff in the jar and spring for a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano, grab your microplaner and grate it yourself. Grating with a microplaner has the added advantage of creating cheese so finely shred that it blends well with the rest of the dressing. It can be made a day in advance.
The second recipe here is Gwen’s Bowtie Pasta, a perennial family favorite. Typically served at room temperature, it’s the perfect dish to take to a potluck or make ahead. It’s also great served warm. But the real treat—assuming you have any left—it gets even better after a day or two in the refrigerator.
The garlic and oil sits together to meld separate from the tomato basil mixture. Be sure to use fresh basil—the dried stuff simply won’t do in this recipe. The longer these two mixtures can sit around before compiling the dish the better.
- Eight garlic cloves, pressed
- 1/2 c. light olive oil
- 2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes
- 1 1/2 jars capers, drained and rinsed
- 3 Tbsp freshly chopped basil
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 Tbsp sherry wine vinegar
- 1 lb box bowtie pasta
- salt and pepper to taste
- Place pressed garlic and oil in a small bowl and set aside.
- In a separate bowl, combine tomatoes, capers, basil, thyme and vinegar.
- Let mixture sit all day.
- Cook pasta per package directions, al dente.
- Drain pasta and toss with garlic oil.
- Toss with tomato mixture.
- Serve warm, at room temp or serve cold.
- 1/4 c. light olive oil
- 1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
- 2 large garlic cloves, pressed
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 t. Worchestershire sauce
- 1/4 c. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated and packed
- 4 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled
- 1/3 c. crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
- Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- Fresh ground pepper
- Put all dressing ingredients in food processor until smooth. Toss with romaine lettuce, extra cheese, crumbled bacon, pepper and Gorgonzola.
- Dressing can be made one day ahead.