2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 ½ cups water
3 cups brown rice elbows
1 cup smoked ham steak, cut into ¼-inch dice
2 ¼ packed cups of grated extra-sharp Cheddar Cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
1 package (10 ounces prewashed fresh spinach
- Combine the broth and 2 ½ cups water in a large deep-sided skillet and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. Stir in the pasta and boil uncovered for 3 minutes less than the minimum on package.
- Stir frequently with wooden spoon to cook the pasta evenly. Try to separate any pasta that sticks together — it's okay if a few noodles here and there stick, but you don't want a big ball bobbing around. And don't worry if some of the pasta sticks out of the water near the end of the cooking process — a lot of the stock and water will have evaporated at this point.
- Reduce the heat to medium-high. Stir in the ham and cheese. Add a dash of salt, plus as much pepper as you like.
- If there's a ton of sauce at this point, turn the heat down a notch and blend the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of water in a separate cup and pour it into the sauce, cranking up the heat to medium-high again and stirring until the slurry is incorporated.*
- Stir in the spinach. Continue cooking uncovered, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente (it still has a bit of bite) and the sauce is creamy and thick, about 1 to 3 minutes. If the sauce thickens too much before the noodles are tender, turn off the pot, cover it, and let the steam build-up cook the noodles for a few minutes.
- Transfer to large, shallow bowls and serve with a few extra grinds of fresh pepper.**
* Slurries can be used to thicken any number of pan-fry sauces, stews, soups or dressings that just look too thin. Chefs — especially your favorites at the Chinese and Italian take-out shops — use this method constantly to achieve a thick sauce that coats the back of the spoon. In kitchen geekery, the correct consistency of spoon-coating sauce is known as nappe.
** Other options: for a sophisticated touch, garnish with fresh chopped chives. For a Tex-Mex twist, use half Monterey pepper jack cheese and half Cheddar. A few minutes before the pasta is finished, stir in a handful of halved cherry tomatoes, 1 teaspoon of mashed chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, and a ¼ cup of chopped, pitted black olives. For an Italian twist, use smoked mozzarella instead of Cheddar and chopped prosciutto instead of ham. Add chopped fresh basil and ¼ cup chopped, oil-soaked, sun-dried tomatoes at the end. Don't forget the Parmesan cheese at the end!
*** Don't be afraid to be creative. It's your kitchen — if you like chopped green peppers, add them! And if ham grosses you out, sub in another meat. Think of recipes as helpful, flexible guides not legal codes that must be followed exactly.