03/18/2013 04:34 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Cooking Off the Cuff: Pasta With Greens Again? Yes!

One of our standby dishes for a quick dinner is pasta with flavorful greens such as Swiss chard, broccoli rabe or kale. As I've said before, the key is to have a batch of greens in the fridge, cooked and ready to go: See this link for general directions and uses.

Jackie and I were longing for a plate of pasta with greens after a couple of weeks of traveling and inevitably eating in restaurants, where such dishes are either absent or not very good (except in Italy, sometimes). But in March, even sturdy Tuscan kale is hard to come by in our farmers' markets (and it would be no fun simply to go to the supermarket and buy greens grown in sunny climes, would it?). So I was pleased to see one farmer selling nice fresh-leafed young Swiss chard grown under glass. Ok, when I chewed a leaf it didn't have a whole lot of that deep earthy flavor I love in chard at the height of its season, but it tasted pretty good, so I bought a couple of bunches and cooked them with garlic, chili, sage leaves and olive oil.

Some of it got eaten as a vegetable side dish that very day, but I kept the rest to scratch our pasta itch. Now, what I simply call pasta with greens can take many, many forms depending on mood, on the quantity (and flavor) of the vegetable and -- mainly -- on what's in the house. This time, there wasn't all that much chard and it wasn't super-tasty; there was a fresh mozzarella and a third of a stale baguette; and of course there was grating cheese -- pecorino romano -- and good olive oil. A couple of hours before dinner, I cut the baguette, crust and all, into croutons and slowly crisped them in olive oil until they were crunchy throughout; in that state, they could be kept until needed without becoming hard. I also cut half of the mozzarella into 1/2-inch dice and put it into the fridge on a paper-towel-lined plate to absorb some of the moisture.

To make the dish, as the pasta water was coming to the boil, I rough-chopped the chard and reheated it with its juice and oil in a skillet large enough to hold the pasta (shells, but most short pastas work for these dishes). When the pasta was half a minute from being done, I drained it (saving some of the starchy, salty water) and added it to the skillet with the chard. Keeping the skillet over low heat, I sprinkled the mixture with grated pecorino (parmesan would have been fine, though not as rustic) and olive oil, tossed and stirred to combine, and checked for salt. It was looking a little too dry (though it mustn't be really wet either), so I added a quarter cup of the pasta water. At this point I folded in the diced mozzarella and transferred the pasta to a warmed serving bowl, then topped it with the croutons, which I stirred in at the table.

A good version: The croutons and mozzarella more than made up for the smaller-than-usual quantity of greens, yet the chard remained the focus: its juices had begun to penetrate into the pasta and its flavor was there in every bite. Plus, it was fun to eat -- kids, even, would love it for the stringy mozzarella and the crunchy croutons. Could this be a possible way of introducing leafy greens to an infantine palate?

Pasta With Greens Again? Yes!