Early on in his just-released cookbook “Toss Your Own Salad” (St. Martin’s Griffin), vegetarian chef Eddie McNamara imparts his wisdom on what it takes to achieve greatness in the kitchen.
Becoming a great cook boils down to two things: “a little knowledge and a lot of practice.” Manhattan-based McNamara musingly describes himself as “a less attractive, heavily tattooed and bearded Rachel Ray.”
He encourages his readers to learn some basic knife skills, how to be a hands-on cook and how to step outside one’s comfort zone. At the same time, McNamara is unabashed about having fun with food.
Chapter headings entertain – from “Vegetables Your Mom Ruined” to “Lazy One-Pot Meals for When You Just Can’t.”
Here’s a good example of McNamara’s culinary repertoire: Blue Cheese, Pear and Pecan Mac and Cheese.
BLUE CHEESE, PEAR AND PECAN MAC AND CHEESE
12 oz. rotini pasta (any pasta will work)
1 shallot, diced
5 oz. bacon tempeh strips (or any vegetarian bacon), diced
3 pears, peeled, cored and cut into slices (use firm pears)
1 head radicchio, sliced
6 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
1 1/2 cups reserved cooking water (or substitute milk for a creamier sauce)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper if you have it. If not the regular kind is fine, too
4 oz. pecan halves, toasted in the oven at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes
Fill a pot with salty water and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta and slightly undercook (2 minutes less than the box instructions). Reserve 2 cups of the cooking water. Drain the pasta and leave it in the colander.
Using the same pot (you don't have to use every pot in the house), coat the bottom with a little olive oil and place over medium heat. Add the shallot and a pinch of salt and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the veggie bacon and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring frequently.
Add the pears and radicchio and season with a little salt and pepper. Stir and cook for 3 minutes.
Add the blue cheese and 1/2 cup of the reserved cooking water. Lower the heat, and stir until it melts down into a sauce that coats the back of the spoon. If you have to add more water here, do it; that's why we reserved 2 cups.
Add the under-cooked pasta, and finish cooking it in the sauce. Taste and season with salt and lots of pepper.
Serve topped with the toasted pecans.
Journalist Tom Witom, who lives in Elgin, has written extensively for years about food and the food industry. Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.