I’ve been participating in an informal food photography contest for a couple of months now on professional food photographer Dario Milano’s blog Food Pixels. Our growing crew of bloggers, photographers and foodniks is pretty talented and it’s always interesting to see how different people interpret each ‘assignment.’ The latest contest challenge is “spaghetti:” a broad topic to be sure, but also an interesting photographic challenge, as most spaghetti dishes are messy, saucy, ultra-casual. Since for the last assignment (“brown food“) I also submitted noodles, I wanted to do something a bit different this time around.
Enter spaghetti nests. Of course, there are the angel-hair ones, pre-formed, that you can buy in the store, but we all know that I’m not exactly the poster child for buying-it-in-the-store. I figured I could wing it (are you afraid yet?) with a made-up recipe and some whole wheat spaghetti that I already had in the cabinet. I wanted something texturally interesting, for photography purposes, but I also wanted to avoid the usual tomato or cream sauce and I thought it would be helpful to put a small dent in the mountain of greens in the fridge.
And guess what? Turns out you can totally make up a spaghetti nest recipe! These were brilliant: crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, smoky & savory from the cheese and bacon, a peppery bite from the chard & shallot and just enough fresh oregano to let you know it’s summer. I made ’em bite-sized because I am always testing out new party recipes (we love having people over): the quick bake in the oven makes these crisp enough for finger food, and even better, they can be made completely in advance and then crisped up in the oven for 10 minutes just before serving.
Interestingly enough, while I am thrilled with how the recipe turned out (I had to stop myself after I’d eaten 10 of them, because the whole “but they’re so tiny!” excuse only works for so long), I’m not so thrilled with the photograph, the whole purpose of the recipe in the first place. Isn’t that always the way? I had a feeling in my head that I wanted to capture with the photos when I was shooting and it just wasn’t working: I took frame after frame and couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t happy. I finally realized that what I really wanted was to photograph this bite-sized party food at a party: in a real-life setting with friends, food, wine, laughter. Unfortunately, the deadline appoacheth, and I couldn’t whip up a spur of the moment Spaghetti Nest Party (you laugh – stranger parties have been dreamt up here, believe me) since Tai was in the Adirondacks and I was in Boston, so I had to make do. Just do me a favor? Close your eyes. Now, imagine a party going on in the background: festive music, glasses clinking, people talking, maybe a fire on the deck, and lots of om-nom-good noises. Got it? Good –now open your eyes. Isn’t that better? If only I can convince everyone in the photography contest to do the same thing.
- 6 oz spaghetti (I like whole wheat)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 4 pieces thick-cut bacon
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 8 oz chard, leaves washed and shaken dry
- 4 oz grated smoked mozzarella, divided
- 1 oz grated parmesan or other hard grating cheese
- 1 tbsp minced fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dried)
- salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Bring a large stockpot full of well-salted water to a boil. Add spaghetti (do not break into pieces); cover the pot until the water returns to a full boil. Cook spaghetti until al dente (about 6 – 8 minutes for whole wheat spaghetti), then drain, rinse under cold water, and toss with olive oil in a large bowl (to prevent sticking together). Set aside.
- Mince shallot & garlic. Trim stems off of chard leaves (reserve for another use) and stack leaves, one on top of another, like a deck of cards. Slice lengthwise, down the stem. Stack each half-stack together, then slice crosswise very thinly, to yield thin, short chard ribbons (like a slaw or chiffonade).
- In a large skillet, cook bacon until crispy. Remove bacon to paper towels to drain; pour off all but 3 tablespoons. While grease is still hot, add shallot and sauté over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add chard and garlic; stir to coat vegetables in grease, then sauté until wilted and bright green, about 2 – 3 minutes. Transfer to spaghetti bowl and toss well with spaghetti to mix thoroughly.
- Coarsely chop bacon; add 3/4 of the bacon, 3/4 of each cheese and oregano to the spaghetti bowl tossing well to mix. Taste, add black pepper and salt if needed (the bacon & cheeses make this fairly salty. I only added a tiny bit of extra salt).
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Lightly spray a mini-muffin pan (or two, if you have them) with oil. Twirl spaghetti around a fork into the bowl of a soup spoon; slide off the fork into each muffin cup, tucking stray strands into a nest shape. Top each nest with a bit of bacon and grated cheese.
- Bake in the 425 degree oven for 10 minutes, or until nests are sizzling, cheese is melted and the tops start to brown and become crispy. Remove, allow to cool for a few minutes in the pan, then remove with a small spatula. For finger-friendly nibbles, allow to cool on paper towels (to absorb excess bacon grease) then transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with additional fresh orgeano, bacon and/or grated cheese.
Yields 32 mini spaghetti nests.
- Nearly endless: I envision an Asian noodle version, with bok choi, firm tofu and sesame, or a Greek version with feta, fresh dill, cucumbers and a yogurt sauce.
- These could easily be vegetarian if you omit the bacon (although my keyboard balks at the very words “omit the bacon“) but I do think some cheese is necessary to bind the nests together. A vegan version might be difficult unless you have a vegan cheese that is melty & sticky.
I’m guessing that the entire recipe can be made ahead and stored, in the muffin tin, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 24 hours, until ready to bake. I had these in the fridge for a couple of days (alas, lacking a party full of people to help me eat them) and while the crisp texture suffers on reheating (mostly because I was lazy and put them in the microwave) they are still just as delicious. If you do store and re-heat, I recommend 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.