29 December 2006

Pasta Fresca!

I ordered a couple dozen pears from Harry & David to be delivered to M's folks place on Cape Cod for Christmas. They arrived too early, so I called and complained. They promised another batch to arrive closer to Christmas. No charge. Now, I never thought fifty pears was what I wanted for Xmas, but it's what I got. Or at least what the whole family got. They were awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I regret not saving one, the reasons for which become apparent below.

M got me a pasta roller attachment for her Kitchenaid mixer. They're traditionally sold with two noodle cutters, one narrow, one wide, but I told her not to bother with these. If I'm going to the trouble of making pasta fresca, it's gonna be a something stuffed, and if it's not stuffed, I prefer hand-cut tagliatelli and papparedelle to uniform noodles. So why clutter the kitchen. I went through a couple of cookbooks and my recollections of various meals in and out of Italy and came up with a must-try list.

  • pappardelle con tartufata - With the Italian truffle spread, butter and cheese. If this were made just with truffles, many would say to omit the cheese. I say go make your own pasta to leave the cheese off. Jacques Pepin tells a great story where he and his wife ask for cheese on a fish pasta dish in a restaurant. The waiter corrects them, saying it's not done, but they insist. He informs the chef who storms out asking who dares sully his creation with inappropriate cheese. The chef takes one look at Pepin, gulps, says it's no problem and retreats to the kitchen. I like the taste of truffles and cheese. And besides, tartufata is mostly mushrooms.
  • "pepperdelle" con olio, pomodoro, e pecorino - Ever since I made the bagel pappa di pomodoro, I've thought the combination of pecorino, black pepper, and tomato was a lovely balance, particularly with a silky or oily texture to back it up. I've found a recipe for black pepper pasta. Once I get a little experience under the old belt, I'm going to attempt this, probably with big sheets of hard, salty pecorino shaved over the top.
  • fagottini con pere e formaggio - little bundles stuffed with ricotta and a chunk of ripe pear, served with a cooked radicchio cream sauce. These were the original dish (with a slightly humorous name in English, though "fagot" in English means bundle) that made me fall in love with Osteria del Ponte. I imagine the difficulty here is in keeping the bundles closed when you boil them.
  • ravioli di zucca - Years ago, I had squash ravioli at Barolo, a restaurant in Denver. Three big, floppy, irregular trapezoids of pasta, stuffed with a very thin layer of sweet, spicy squash--it barely accounted for half of the entire thickness of the ravioli, and melded perfectly with the browned sage butter it was served in. I had this long before I ever got acquainted with real Italian cooking and I could sense even then that this was something true. This is the one bow to familiar dishes I'll probably make with fresh pasta. Because when you cook the familiar, your dish falls into a continuum between the best and the worst your guests have ever had. Hopefully, you can be on the top end of the scale. You'll rarely be the best, so why even compete in the "spinach-ricotta ravioli" division? Why not do something new?
  • maltagliati - The name means 'badly cut'. This is, I guess, what you cook up for the kids with the leftovers from making the mezzelune for the guests. Basically, it's irregularly cut noodles. Bits and pieces. Pastasciutta (dry pasta) is the essence of industrial food: mass-produced, totally uniform. (Too bad other industrialized food hasn't maintained the same purity.) I think was I was latching onto with those irregular ravioli was the fact that they'd obviously been created by a human, not a machine. Don't get me wrong. I love dry pasta for its infinite combinations, but the same impulse that made me shy away from the uniform noodle cutter attachments makes maltagliati attractive.
  • lasagne in brodo - I had this in Lubriano, cooked by my friend Vivian. It's truly an amazing recipe, somewhere between soup and layered pasta, with meatballs and sliced hard-boiled egg! Labor-intensive, for sure, but impressive. Could even make it more special with the addition of a peeled soft-boiled egg on top too enrich the broth.
  • casoncelli alla bergamasca - These are gyoza-shaped, stuffed with braised beef or veal, raisins, and crushed amaretto cookies, sauced with sage butter and pancetta. Had these at Osteria del Ponte in Italy, but didn't know the ingredients. If I'd known them, I probably would've enjoyed the dish more. As it was, I didn't really like it as much as the others.
This is sort of getting at the heart of stuffed pasta's appeal. It's what Michael Pollan in the Omnivore's Dilemma calls "good to think." The book is incredible, by the way, and highly recommended. He uses "good to think" as the pair of "good to eat" mostly to indicate that you feel good about the provenance of the food you are eating (e.g., that the cow was humanely slaughtered, or that the vegetables weren't trucked in from California). Stuffed pasta is often "good to think" as well. Usually, it's not much to look at, and the fillings are almost necessarily a fine paste of various indistinguishable ingredients, none of which can be too strongly flavored for fear of overwhelming everything else, including the pasta and whatever sauce it comes with. But at the same time, there's so little of the stuffing that you really can't put any great number of things in there or they're all going to disappear. So you almost have to bank on the diner's knowledge of what's in the pasta to heighten their enjoyment, because it's unlikely that they'll be able to pick out more than a couple ingredients, and if they do, it probably won't be a pleasant sensation.

I've found a few other stuffed pasta terms, but they seem to fall into a few groups (limiting myself here to those that are stuffed and boiled):
  • crimped - Ravioli, lunette, and ravioloni. These are two separate sheets filled and sealed together. Suited to industrial production.
  • folded - Mezzelune, casoncelli, and quadrucci. This is a single piece folded over and sealed.
  • origami - tortellini, agnolotti, and tortelloni. In the tortelli family, the piece is square, and it folds over to a triangle, two points of which are folded together. This makes sense as there would not be any maltagliati left over with cutting square sheets.
  • bundled - Fagottini and perline. These are pieces with a dollop of filling around which the pasta is gathered. I'm still unclear on how these don't end up coming undone in the water. There might be considerable trial and error here.
That last point also brings up the fact that the best and easiest probable use for pasta fresca is in lasagne. Multi-layered lasagne with a light topping is a real treat, with no boiling needed, no chance of explosion, and a heavy satisfaction factor.

Phew! I never suspected when I sat down to list some of my pasta fresca ambitions that this would turn into a meditation on what it is, but I suppose I should always be prepared for that. If anyone has any ideas about other stuffed or fresh pasta I should try, let me know.

19 December 2006

Protein and Greens

I've been eating a hunk of protein and leafy greens for lunch at work almost every day and have yet to tire of it. So I brought that knowledge home this weekend

Sunday dinner comprised a couple of old favorites: hanger steak and broccoli rabe. I've workshopped both of these dishes a few times and figured out some good tricks. My butcher sells marinated hanger steaks, but the first time we got them, we were rewarded with meat that tasted only of marinade. Hanger is a bargain-ish cut, but you still want to be able to taste your meat.

I marinated the steak for under an hour in a combination of toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin, a dash of sriracha, and a clove of crushed garlic. Somehow, when you put this combination with a steak, it just tastes good, not markedly Asian, so there was no problem doing the greens Italian style. I cooked the steak on medium heat on a cast iron griddle. The marinade crusts up pretty good. I don't know whether this is a problem or a benefit, but it definitely means you can only do one batch of steaks before scrubbing out the pan. So this is sort of a two-person recipe.

The big discovery on the greens was something I cottoned onto cooking dinner at Dashton's house. Broccoli rabe is a labor-intensive green. I'm glad to start seeing it all over, as it's tasty and good for you, but it's a lot of work because of the tough threads on the outside of the stalk. Some restaurants cut corners by chopping the stalk crosswise so the threads are not as noticeable, but you still can feel them in your mouth, and it's not pleasant. The other approach is to peel the greens from the bottom of the stalk up. This is labor-intensive, though, because you end up tearing some of the leaves off, and leaving some of the thready side stalks on. The compromise is to chop the leaves and head off the stalk, leaving the main stalk and maybe a few side stalks. These you can strip off, then peeling the main stalk is a breeze. Also, separating the leaves and stalks makes the main dish a bit of a different beast. It's somewhat like braised swiss chard, where there's a leafy component and a tender, sweet stalk component. The peeled stalks are light green and stand out, encouraging you to eat them singly, and you're rewarded for this amply.

I did mine simply, boiled for about 5 minutes in abundant salted water. While they boiled, I fried up some thinly sliced garlic in good olive oil, and added a healthy dash of pepper flakes. Experience has taught me to avoid lemon juice or pepper, which are good with other greens. Broccoli rabe has an inherent zing that both of these kickers, so good with beet greens or escarole, distract from. So, just five ingredients: greens, oil, garlic, salt, red pepper flakes (and water). M pronounced them the best greens yet.

One 18 oz. hanger and a bunch of greens. Not bad for a Sunday night. I splurged on a Hess Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for such a simple but flavorful meal, and wasn't disappointed.

09 December 2006

Texas Crispers

So Texas Crispers are probably my favorite processed food. They're steak fries made by Ore-Ida, coated in a crispy, spicy... well, coating. I dunno, as far as a high effort-reward ratio for cooking something from scratch at home, I think the homemade french fry rivals homebaked bread. It's not that both of these can't be sublime when made at home, but that they both benefit from scale. Having a professional fryolator or a steam-injected oven allows you to perfect these simple, textural treats. My views on homebaked bread, though, might be changing.

This is especially important with breakfast food. It's very rare for me to have leftover potatoes on Sunday morning, and I've just found that throwing a dozen Texas Crispers on a cookie sheet for the 14 minutes it takes me to whip up some chorizo and eggs is a far more pleasurable way to start a weekend morning than peeling potatoes.

Of course, since moving to Manhattan, I've largely given up what I call "American breakfast" in favor of "New York breakfast". The bagel place directly downstairs is just awesome. The standard with me and M is a pumpernickel, a sesame, and a little tub of cream cheese. I find that if we let them do the cream cheese, it's overwhelming and not very healthy. Sometimes I'll throw on a quarter pound of their unbelievable, buttery lox, but at $36 a pound, that's an occasional treat.

We also use Tal Bagels as a resource when we entertain. Fresh baked bagel wedges, cream cheese and smoked salmon are a very good way to start a meal. I'll often wait there until a batch comes right out of the oven (which is right there, visible from the counter) and take that home. There are few more sublime pleasures than a bagel hot enough to melt the cream cheese.

Bagel places, as well, are a good example of how scaling helps certain foods. Can you think of anything else that applies here? The high-throughput environment of a popular bagel place (or a sushi place, for that matter) contributes to its quality. So success begets more success. It's an interesting thing.

I suppose Texas Crispers and processed foods don't really fall into this same category, since those are all about shelf (or freezer) life and bakeries and sushi places are all about freshness.