Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Chickpea & onion ravioli


For me it's all about the pasta.

Sometimes, though, it's really about the filling.

I had been Jonesin for some chickpeas (garbanzos if you prefer the more humorous sounding designation, ceci to those who parlano Italiano). The original dinner plan had called for some kind of homemade noodle, sauce To Be Determined, and so with the dough at the ready I set out to concoct a chickpea filling to stuff inside ravioli.

Following me down this determined—if haphazardly charted—course would not be the worst culinary decision that you could make.


Saute a small onion, two or three garlic cloves and some hot pepper in olive oil.


After the onion has softened add one 15-ounce can of chickpeas (drained of liquid).


Add in the zest of half a lemon and simmer for maybe five minutes.


In a bowl mash the chickpeas by hand. The idea is not to make the filling totally smooth but to keep some texture; otherwise I'd have used a food processor and turned this into more of a puree.


This is about right as far as consistency. Once you've mashed the chickpeas put them in the fridge and allow to cool before filling the ravioli.


The rest is just your basic ravioli making, which starts out like this...


... makes its way here ...


... and winds up a right about in this place. I'd suggest a simple brown butter and sage preparation to sauce these ravioli. In fact, that's what I had prepared myself.


But it just so happens that my friend Laura delivered a bag of zucchini flowers.


And so just for kicks I decided to toss them in with the brown butter and sage.


When the ravioli are boiled to doneness gently remove them from the water using a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the brown butter. It's okay to let some of the pasta water into the pan; in fact, you'll want some of it to mix with the butter and coat the ravioli. Remove the ravioli to individual plates and serve immediately.


I will be Jonesin for these ravioli again one day. Soon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Not your grandpa's red sauce


It was a sucker bet that I couldn't expect to win. My friend Peter had given me a taste of a tomato sauce that his grandfather used to be "famous for." The two main ingredients in the sauce, my friend had informed me, are chicken thighs and mint, neither one a staple in your average red sauce. Peter had boasted about his grandfather's creation on several occasions, speaking of how he both craves and prepares it many times a year for himself and his wife Claudia.

"Let me know what you think, Meathead," he said as I backed away from his driveway, a covered plastic container filled with leftover penne alla grandpa occupying the seat next to me. "If you like it maybe I'll even let you have the recipe."

Peter and I have what you might call an adolescent relationship. He did, after all, deliberately bury a rather large chicken bone inside the container of (overcooked) pasta, presumably so that I might choke on it. And so it was no surprise to either of us when I scoffed at his offer.

"Recipe? I don't need no stinkin' recipe," I grunted. "I'll know how to make your precious little sauce just by tasting it. A hundred bucks says mine'll be even better."

My friend, as they say, is careful with his money. At Peter's insistence the stakes were dropped to a tenth of what I had proposed. Claudia would judge my sauce against her husband's. Not the firmest ground that I have ever stood on when making a wager, but it was the only ground that I could manage.

Below is the version of the sauce that I prepared. It might not be Peter's grandfather's sauce but it is well worth preparing.

As for the wager, it was decided that the transfer of capital was to go not from my friend's pocket to mine but from mine to his. This decision was handed down—without explanation or debate, mind you—by the mother of Peter's children and, presumably, co-owner of however many dollars he has amassed.

Like I said, a sucker bet.


Start with a generous amount of olive oil in your favorite saucepot and add a chopped onion, two chopped celery stalks, four or five garlic cloves and a good dose of hot pepper.


Don't tell Peter but I also tossed in a few anchovy fillets. (He didn't even notice but now that he knows I guarantee that I will never stop hearing about it.)


Once the onion and celery have softened add four large bone-in chicken thighs and simmer. (Both my friend and I are adamant about bone-in meats having greater flavor, but go ahead and use boneless if you insist.)


After two or three minutes turn the thighs over.


After another couple minutes add two 28-ounce cans of tomatoes, a big handful of fresh mint leaves (at least twice as many as shown here), and salt and pepper to taste. Set the flame to a low heat and simmer slowly for at least two hours, then remove the fully cooked chicken thighs and allow to cool just enough so that you can handle them with your fingers.


Once the thighs have cooled pull away all the meat and discard the bones and skin.


Add the meat back into the sauce.


Then—and this is something I insist makes the sauce much brighter and more flavorful than my friend's version—add another good handful of fresh mint leaves and simmer for two or three more minutes.


Turn off the heat, stir in around three-quarters of a cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve over your favorite pasta.


You can bet on this one. Trust me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Clams & chorizo


These clams were a big hit the other night. They were fresh and tender and super sweet, pretty much the perfect appetizer for four people to share.

If you're like me, though, a dish like this is really about only one thing: dunking bread in the broth. So make certain to have plenty of the crusty stuff on hand should you decide to give this a go.


Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Saute a large onion, 6 garlic cloves, two celery stalks and some hot pepper in olive oil until softened. I used a very large black iron pan here, but any pan that's oven-safe will do.


Add around a quarter pound of diced chorizo. I used cooked Spanish chorizo here.


Add some fresh herbs (thyme and marjoram here), freshly ground black pepper and a quart of stock. I used some of the homemade shrimp stock I had in the freezer but any light stock will be fine. Turn the heat up to high.


Let the stock reduce by around half.


While the stock is reducing clean your clams thoroughly to get rid of any sand or grit. I used three dozen medium-sized clams here.


Add the clams to the pan and place into the oven uncovered. I used the outdoor wood oven this time, as it was fired up to cook several other things that evening.


As soon as all the clams have opened, which shouldn't take more than a few minutes, you're ready to go. Either set the hot pan out where people can scoop out their clams or go the safer route and transfer to a large serving bowl.


Either way the clams will wind up in a few individual bowls like this one. We were four people on this night and so we each got eight clams as an appetizer.


Oh yeah, there wasn't any bread leftover either.

Monday, April 20, 2015

How to make gnudi


I won't lie to you. Making these things is not for everyone. The ingredients—the whole recipe—is simple enough. Nothing to it, really.

But few things are lighter and more delicate than well-made gnudi. And so it all boils down to patience. You'll need a lot of it. And a very light touch wouldn't hurt.

If you come up short on either, my advice might be to take a pass on these. Or share this link with somebody who can whip some up for you. (Ask a ye shall receive... and all that.)


Gnudi (pronounced "new-dee") are basically just ricotta gnocchi. Both are dumplings, but gnudi seems to show up in a wider variety of shapes, at least so far as I can tell. Normally I'd make my own ricotta, or buy fresh, but this time I went with regular store bought. Calabro is my favorite brand, and this is a two-pound tub. (If you live in a place where Calabro distributes its fresh ricotta then definitely go with that.)


I wanted to make the gnudi a lot like my cheese gnocchi, meaning that there'd be very little else in them but the ricotta. That means making certain to drain as much moisture from the cheese as possible; since I was a little short on time I lined a colander with paper towels and swapped them out three or four times over a couple hours.


In a bowl place the two pounds of ricotta, 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, some freshly grated nutmeg, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup of semolina. Taste to make sure the seasoning is right, and adjust if necessary.

A couple important things about the semolina: First of all, it should neither be super fine nor very course. Go with a medium grain semolina. You might also consider upping the amount. Most recipes call for a lot more semolina than I've used here, and for good reason: It will make the gnudi much easier to work with—and a lot less likely to fall apart. My way is more risky, and it absolutely requires great patience and care, particularly when cooking and saucing. Don't get me wrong, this recipe works just fine—for me. But it does make me a little nuts because it is so very delicate.


Cover a baking sheet with a thick layer of the same semolina used in the cheese mixture.


To form the gnudi scoop out a heaping tablespoon of the mixture. (No matter how much flour you decide to use the mixture itself should be firm enough to work with easily when forming.)


Gnudi come in all sizes and shapes. I like them large and oval. These measure around three inches long and better than an inch thick, and so the recipe yielded around 20 dumplings. (Smaller would be easier to work with if you want to play it safer.)


Roll the gnudi in the semolina so that the flour completely covers it.


Once you've finished rolling all of them place the tray (uncovered) in the fridge for a while.

Which bring us to another important point. I formed my gnudi at 6 am and didn't serve them until 8 pm, so they sat in the fridge for more than 12 hours. During that time I turned and covered the gnudi with more flour at least twice. What's happening here is that the flour is slowly hardening and the cheese is drying a bit. (I've seen recipes where you leave the gnudi in the fridge for three days.) If you decide to go the safer route and use a good bit more semolina in the cheese mixture then this stage isn't all that important, if at all. Most recipes skip this stage entirely, in fact, because most use a lot more flour than I do. Again, it's a personal choice.


As for cooking the gnudi, again, patience. Drop them into a pot of well-salted water—quickly but one at a time! These took four minutes to cook (it's always best to test just one and see how long it takes before committing to an entire batch). Only remove them from the water with a slotted spoon, then place them directly into individual plates and apply sauce (roasted tomato & prosciutto here). At this size the gnudi boiled for four minutes.

And they were totally worth all the effort.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Whining over Italian wine


I’m not a wine expert. Nobody has ever paid me to write about the stuff, not once, and I have been in this word game a long time. My friend Tom, who makes a living writing about adult beverages, complains about the lack of wine coverage on this blog, specifically Italian wines, which I'll admit to spending many years studying.

“I don’t understand,” my friend will say. “Italian wines are really hard to get your arms around. There are so many different grapes and designations, and the labels are impossible to comprehend. People might actually be interested in learning the things that you know about these wines, you know.”

Okay Tommy, here’s some expert Italian wine advice for you. Read it carefully, because this might just be the only time I give advice like this in public.

Never pay $50 for a bottle of Italian wine when you can get it someplace else for $8 and change. Come to think of it, this probably goes for all wines, not just the Italian ones. But, as I said before, I'm no expert.

How's that for advice?

I can rant all day about this but will simply lay out the facts and be on my way. My Associate and I were in Arizona recently, on a driving trip that spanned a little south of Tucson to a little north of Flagstaff. On two occasions we dined at places whose wine lists had been Wine Spectator-approved. They could not have been more different.

The first was the dining room at Hacienda del Sol in Tucson. The wine list, a book that required true commitment to plow through, included the requisite I-don't-care-what-it-costs-just-bring-me-the-damn-bottle selections (the $4,500 Vosne-Romanée comes to mind). But it was in no way a list crafted to rip you off. I found a really nice Nebbiolo d'Alba for $54—and it was 15 years old! The same bottle in a wine shop (if you could even find it) would cost at least $30, maybe more. Another bottle we cracked open was a 2008 Sagrantino di Montefalco, a little-known Umbrian varietal that I like a whole lot. The retail price on this particular bottle is around $25. It's on the wine list for $59. I'd call that very reasonable, especially given that the restaurant is in a resort.

Days later, at L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek in Sedona, also the kind of place that prefers entire wine books over lists, I found the exact (if misspelled) vintage of Sagrantino di Montefalco, but for $75, not $59. This didn't bother me so much. Okay, it bothered me a little. But what really got me going was this place's entry-level Italian wine.


This is the least expensive bottle on L'Auberge's paltry selection of Italian wines. It's the 2009 Monte Antico, a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The price: $50.

Average retail price: around $10-12. Though I've seen it plenty of times (at the supermarket, for instance, as this is one very high-production label) for less than $9. This is a place where the least expensive dinner option is a three-course prix fixe job at $80. Serving Monte freaking Antico. Seriously.

I don't begrudge a restaurant from getting its markup, even a hefty one. But if you're going to pull a scam at least be smart about it and pick a $9 wine that I never heard of—and that I can't pick up where I buy milk and laundry detergent. 

But what do I know?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fresh Maine sea urchin



It isn't every day you come across these babies, not even here in Maine. Virtually all sea urchins that are harvested in these waters get processed on their way to the sushi bar. Which is fine, because I do love me some uni. But I also enjoy wrestling with nature's creatures from time to time, and so there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to mess with these. Four of them, actually.


In case you're interested, this is what a Maine sea urchin looks like from what I suppose you might call "the business end." The small circular area in the center is its mouth, actually.


I'm not smart enough to figure out a way to cut open and photograph a sea urchin at the same time, and so you'll have to settle for this after shot.


Big surprise, I decided to go with a pasta dish. (I know, who'da thunk?) That's a big hunk of butter, some olive oil, a shallot and a garlic clove.


Once the shallots and garlic softened, I turned off the heat, waited a couple minutes, and then added the urchin (a little lemon zest and/or fresh parsley are recommended at this point too).


The idea here is to not cook the urchin, but rather let the pasta warm it. And so once the spaghetti was cooked I added it and some of the pasta water to the pan and very gently mixed things together.


Definitely one of the richest things I've eaten in quite a while. Which is saying something because, well, you see how I eat. Delicious, though; silky and smooth in a way that few things are.

Go ahead, live a little!