Goat cheese yesterday and now goat cheese today! The credit for inspiration for this pasta dish goes to Paul Goyette, formerly of this blog and currently of locussolus fame.
The Redhead and I visited Paul and his family a couple of weeks ago, and like always when we're at their place, we ate like kings. One of the dishes Paul treated us to was pasta with strips of farmer's market fresh sweet red peppers in a spicy goat-cheese based sauce. His version included tiny dried Italian hot peppers and was quite spicy, which I enjoyed.
It got into my head that this sauce would also be great in a less spicy preparation that emphasized the savory elements. Paul had also been experimenting with caramelizing onions until they were as sweet as candy, and as that also seemed like a great idea, I pinched that concept as well for this dish.
Now, you'll notice the main ingredients in the sauce are goat cheese and water. That doesn't seem like much to build on. The water, however, comes from the pasta pot, and the starches in the water from the pasta help to hold the sauce together even as we thin out the cheese. The salt in the water helps to flavor the pasta, but the most important flavors come from the onions, the strips of roasted bell pepper, and the garlic and oregano infused zucchini.
Watery cheese might seem like a strange base for a sauce, but you'll be making pasta like this all the time once you try this technique. Sauce is what you make it, and if a goat cheese and pasta-water sauce works, it works.
Pasta with Vegetables and Goat Cheese Sauce
2 large white onions
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 pound whole wheat linguini
salt for the pasta water
water for the salt and pasta
3 oz. fresh goat cheese - no need to use top quality, commercial will do
1 roasted bell pepper (I used a yellow one, you can use red if you wish), cut into strips
2 more tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1 teaspoon dried oregano, divided
salt and pepper to taste
one more tablespoon of olive oil
First, remove the goat cheese from the package and place it on a sheet of wax paper or parchment at room temperature to soften.
Cut the tops and bottoms off your onions and using a mandoline slice the onions into very thin slices. I always have to turn on the exhaust fans, open the windows, and have a moist paper towel ready for my eyes when I do this so work quickly (but use your hand guard for the mandoline so it's also safe). If you don't have a mandoline, go get one. It's one of the best kitchen tools you'll ever buy and you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on an infinitely adjustable one. I have this one, and it's been working great for me for over seven years.
Heat the oil and melt the butter in a skillet. Add the onion slices and stir well over medium heat. Continue sauteeing the onions over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until they color and turn brown. This may take as long as thirty minutes. You'll be tempted to turn the heat up to get it over with, but resist, and you'll be rewarded with intensely sweet caramel colored onions. Once you have these, set them aside for later use.
While the onions are caramelizing, cut the tops and bottoms off your zucchini and using the mandoline again on the thicker sliced setting, make 1/4" slices lengthwise along the zucchini, discarding the first and last peel slices. Cut these into 4" long sections, and slice these down the middle to create manageable sized pieces.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet (you can reuse the onion skillet, if you wish), and add two cloves worth of garlic. Add the zucchini pieces, and a teaspoon of oregano. Sautee the zucchini, stirring and flipping the pieces until tender, but not falling apart. Set aside.
Put a half gallon (two quarts) of water on to boil with a good tablespoon of salt in it. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until it's al dente.
Use a pasta fork to remove the linguini so you save the pasta water. Alternatively, spoon out three or four ladles of water into a bowl before draining the linguini.
In a large skillet over low heat, heat one tablespoon of olive oil and add the pasta to the skillet. Add the softened goat cheese and stir well. As you stir, ladle a little of the pasta water in to help melt the goat cheese. Continue to add water until you have coating of cheese on all the noodles.
Once you have good even cheese distribution, add the caramelized onions a little at a time while you stir. The onion will want to clump, so distribute them slowly while stirring. Add the bell pepper strips similarly.
Finally, add the zucchini and toss with the pasta to coat and evenly distribute the vegetables. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve in warm bowls.