Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Braised beef short ribs

The chill hasn't yet gone out of spring. Here in Maine this morning they're actually calling for snowflakes. The last pile of seasoned firewood on my front porch grows smaller each day, and come Sunday it's going to be May.

In other words, it's still braising season here in the Northland. Might as well get with the program and rustle up some short ribs.

Finely dice three large carrots, three celery stalks, one onion, one leek, and six garlic cloves; also measure out 1/4 cup of pine nuts.

This is just under 5 pounds of beef short ribs. Season the ribs very well with kosher salt (don't be shy) and freshly ground black pepper.

Dredge the ribs in all-purpose flour.

Cover the entire surface of a large Dutch oven in olive oil; heat the oil and brown the ribs on all sides. You may need to do this in batches; I browned two ribs at a time.

When the ribs are nicely browned remove from the oil and set aside.

Add the diced vegetables, pine nuts and a few anchovy filets (optional) to the oil and saute until softened but not browned. I also added some fresh thyme, marjoram and rosemary.

Return the ribs to the Dutch oven.

Then cover the meat with a combination of red wine and stock. I used 6 cups of homemade chicken stock here and one bottle of an inexpensive Cote du Rhone; you may not need to use this much liquid. Cover the pot and place in the oven (preheated to 350 degrees F). After around 2 hours remove the cover and continue cooking for another hour or until the meat is completely tender.

These ribs were in the oven for just over 3 hours and the meat was so soft and tender that it literally slid right off the bones. The ribs gave off a lot of fat and so I used a large spoon to scoop most of it out.

Then I set the ribs aside, added the zest of around half a lemon, and reduced the sauce a little bit because it was on the thin side. Depending on how much sauce you have, and its consistency, you may not need to reduce the sauce at all, but the lemon zest is still a good idea.

I served the short ribs over homemade pappardelle but mashed potatoes, polenta, or even risotto would work too.

If you're lucky there'll be leftovers. This stuff is always going to taste better the next night. Which in my case turned out to be in the 30-degree-get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-it's-supposed-to-be-freaking-spring range.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to make potato ravioli

They only look like the ones your mother used to make.

Far from it, actually. These ravioli are filled with potato, not ricotta. The only cheese inside is a little grated Reggiano, and that's for flavor, not texture.

I know what you're thinking: Must be pretty heavy. Like pierogi maybe. Cannonball type stuff, right?

Nope. These are pretty light as ravioli go, so long as you treat the filling just right.

Start with around 2 pounds of Russett potatoes. With a fork pierce the skin in several places and bake until the flesh is thoroughly softened. It's totally cool to microwave the potatoes instead; after all, we'll only be using the flesh, not the skins. Just don't boil the potatoes, okay. Far as I'm concerned that always makes for a heavier filling.

Once the potatoes are baked allow them to cool just enough so that you can work with them without burning your fingers. Remove the skins and run the potatoes through a ricer and into a mixing bowl.

Mix in one egg, three tablespoons melted butter, 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, a dash of nutmeg, salt (don't be shy here, okay) and pepper to taste, and enough milk to moisten the potatoes. I'd start with 1/4 cup and add from there as needed; the idea is to achieve a nice and smooth filling, but not a runny one.

For good measure stir in some extra virgin olive oil, at which point the filling should be good to go. Taste it and adjust as you see fit. You can now get right to work on making the ravioli, or refrigerate the filling until you're ready. It will last in the fridge a few days.

All that's left to do now is put the ravioli together (here's my fresh pasta dough recipe in case you need one). These pasta sheets are very thin, rolled out to the 1.5 setting on my pasta machine, which ranges from 1-10, thinnest to thickest. You can see that the filling is creamy without being runny; that's the consistency you're looking for.

To keep the ravioli from having air pockets carefully lay down the top pasta sheet with that in mind. I always begin at one end and slowly roll the top sheet down over each dollop of filling. To me that works better than lowering the entire top sheet down onto the bottom sheet at once.

One at a time start to form the ravioli; again, being careful to allow all of the air to escape.

This is how things should look. It's not the end of the world if a little air is left inside the ravioli; just do your best to keep it to a minimum.

All that's left to do now is get out your pasta cutter and cut the ravioli. As I said, the dough is thin and delicate. When you boil the ravioli (in very well-salted water, of course) they should only take around 3 minutes.

The great thing about this filling is that it goes great with most any kind of sauce you can conjure. This is a really simple sauce that I made here. I just sauteed some garlic and a little hot pepper in olive oil, then added lots of sweet butter, white wine and chopped parsely. In a couple minutes enough of the wine had reduced so that the flavor was just right. Easy peasey.

Then again, I have some leftover filling from the other night and I'll be making a small batch of the ravioli for dinner tonight. This time it'll be a Bolognese sauce, I think.

Which is a lot more like what mom might have made.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

I'm a loser

Here’s to the losers, bless them all

I envy people who win. Doesn’t matter if it’s due to hard work or no effort at all. Winning is winning.

Losing is more my speed. Always has been. I’ve been losing really important people and things since way back. I don’t say that in a poor-me-ain’t-I-just-too-pitiful-for-words kind of way. It’s just a fact.

I lost something just a few days ago. Not one of those life-altering losses like your dad or best friend or even your most devoted dog, but a damn tough loss nonetheless.

See, I let Sinatra’s fedora get away from me. For a lousy couple grand.

Yeah, I know. This hasn’t got a thing to do with food. (Though the auction house in which Frank’s hat was offered did provide a spread of cheeses and meats and even boiled shrimp to those attending the afternoon’s “Celebrity Memorabilia” event.) I’ve got some serious demons to exorcise here, okay. Come back next week and I promise to cook you up something real nice.

Two friends accompanied me to the event in Biddeford, Maine. Marc acted as wingman; he took the drive and sat next to me as I waited for Lot # 12 to go on the block. X.Ray was back in New Jersey doing who knows what, but he remained in constant phone contact throughout.

I knew before stepping foot in the auction house that Frank’s hat would be a pretty close fit. I’d earlier reached out to the Sinatra family and Frank’s daughter Nancy put her father’s hat size within a mere 1/8th inch of my own. Others might store away or display such an item but my plan was to wear it. Proudly.

Marc and I were shocked to discover Frank’s fedora not behind a glass case or on a shelf shielding its felt from the public’s reach. Rather, there it was on a plain folding table in the center of the room next to similarly desirable artifacts: Brando’s bad-ass-black leather motorcycle jacket, Jack Benny’s stage-used violin, a couple dozen items in all.

Marc tells me that he can’t quite describe my expression as I approached the brown fedora, a Stetson as it happens.

“You’ve got it bad, dude,” I heard him say, or at least I think he did.

The Stetson was perched atop a white foam mannequin head. Underneath was a red folder containing the item’s provenance, in this case originating from the collection of one Joe Franklin, a now-deceased talk-show host in New York with whom I am well familiar having grown up there. I wanted to inspect the hat to see its size but dared not touch it. Marc and I discussed asking one of the auction house workers to investigate. But then a voice was heard loudly and clearly.

“You can try it on if you like.”

It was a woman standing behind a glass display case that carried, among other things, Babe Ruth’s glove and Roy Campanella’s face mask.

“Seriously?” I asked. “I only wanted to see what size it is.”

“Like I said,” the woman offered in a very pleasant manner, “you’re more than welcome to try it on.”

At this point, Marc would tell me later that afternoon over fried chicken and drinks, my expression went positively six year’s old on Christmas morning.

I know. It looked a lot better on him. But what was I gonna do, not show this to you?

I knew that X.Ray, as big a fan of the man as I, would be just as insanely thrilled by this new development, and so I texted the picture to him right away.

“You need that hat brother,” he responded seconds later. “You must be weak in the knees.”

I responded with a one-word profanity, the likes of which need not be repeated here.

“If Mr. Sinatra is watching from above,” X.Ray typed, “I think it is fair to say that he would be proud to have a man like you own his hat.”

It’s true what they say, you know: Choose your friends wisely.

Moments later Marc and I took our seats. The auction was about to begin. Frank’s hat would be the twelfth item on the block. I hadn’t expected to be a player, as earlier I’d been told by the auctioneer that prices were estimated to be much higher than I’d imagined. But then the first few items went for a song, just a couple hundred dollars for a hat belonging to Ray Charles, about as much for those owned by Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton and Judy Garland. These prices were way below the auctioneer’s estimates.

“How much cash you got on you?” I asked Marc reaching into my own pocket to do a count.

“I don’t know, a couple hundred,” he said. “Are you serious? I thought we were just spectators.”

I always carry a lot of cash, way more than that. Between Marc’s and mine, all of a sudden I was in the game.

When Mr. Sinatra’s Stetson came up for its turn, the auctioneer sought an opening bid of $20,000. This didn’t rattle me very much because he had sought similar openings earlier and without success. The room remained silent. The man tried $15,000 and still nothing, then $10,000. Finally Frank Sinatra’s fedora opened at $3,000. Still not so good as I’d reconciled myself to go no higher than $3,500. In an instant the bid went to $4,000, then $4,500 and then to $5,000, the winning bid and not my own.

Marc and I took our leave. It was raining and we were hungry—and thirsty.

I texted X.Ray to let him know how things went down.

“My condolences brother,” he typed. “You gave it a shot and you actually got to wear the man’s hat. I bet that alone will make the rest of your day.”

He was right, of course, but that was days ago now. 

As Casey Stengel said, "Without losers, where would the winners be?"

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Flourless walnut chocolate cookies

Tonight there's gonna be a pretty swell homecoming dinner at my house and all I got to cook was a batch of these lousy cookies.

Seriously. There's several courses planned. Not even a pasta course am I asked to contribute!


Anyhow, what I'm lacking in quantity I'll make up for in class. These cookies are really delicious, and on the elegant side (just like my friend Scott, the one who's returning home after several months away). I got the idea for them after seeing this dolci di noci recipe from Calabria, but decided to mess with the recipe and also add the chocolate and the orange.

I should mention that the kitchen has been in constant use all day (by the real cook in the house). To pull off this important "cookie course" of mine I had to get in and out of the kitchen quickly. In other words, they're some of the easiest cookies you will ever lay eyes on.

There's no flour in this recipe. This is 1 pound of walnuts and 1 cup of sugar that's been ground in a food processor. It's ground very finely but not to a powder.

Add 1/2 cup of cocoa powder and the zest of two large oranges.

Then add two large eggs and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Mix everything together with a spatula until it starts to clump up.

But I find it best to use my hands to finish up the mixing.

Here's the finished mixture; it only takes a couple minutes to pull together.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and form balls with the dough (around 1 inch high by 1 1/2 inches wide). Place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F for anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.

This batch baked for just shy of 20 minutes. It amounted to 25 cookies.

Allow the cookies to cool, then top with confectioners sugar and have at it.

If they let me cook an actual appetizer or entree next time people come over I'll be sure to let you know.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Steamed clams quickie

Lately I've taken some crap over not posting here very much. Truth is, there hasn't been a lot of cooking going on around the house all winter. I won't bore you with the details. Just know that I'm a lot less happy about it than you are. And am looking very much forward to a shift in direction very soon.

Anyhow, I'll assume that a quickie communication trumps none at all, and so here's a super fast steamed clams dish to ponder when next you're at the fish store.

This is three dozen mahogany clams but any kind of hard shell clam will do. Scrub the shells and rinse in cold water.

In a pot large enough to hold all the clams saute a leek, four or five garlic cloves and some hot pepper in olive oil for a couple of minutes.

Add a cup of dry white wine (I just used dry vermouth here) and a few sprigs of fresh thyme and bring to a boil.

Add the clams and cover with a lid so that they can steam. When the clams have popped open they're done. Some will open sooner than others and you can remove them to a serving bowl as they're ready. The clams that don't open should be tossed.

All that's left to do now is pour the liquid over the clams in a serving bowl and have at 'em.

I told you this was gonna be a quickie, didn't I?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Chocolate hazelnut biscotti

You don't have to be a great baker to make respectable biscotti. I'm living proof of that. Besides, it rained all day today. I needed something to do.

In a large mixing bowl add the following: 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup cocoa powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (a full teaspoon is fine), and a pinch of sea salt.

In a separate mixing bowl add 4 large eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 1 teaspoon brandy. Mix until the eggs are somewhat thickened.

Gradually add the egg mixture into the dry mix and incorporate.

Add 1 cup of lightly crushed toasted hazelnuts and 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips and mix until fully incorporated. (If the mix seems too dry add a little milk; I used a couple tablespoons.)

Divide the mix in half. On a floured surface take each half of the batch and form a log around a foot or more long and three or so inches wide.

Place both logs on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and brush with egg wash. Place in the oven preheated to 350 degrees F for around 25 minutes, rotating the sheet at the halfway mark.

Remove the logs and let them cool for 15 minutes.

With a serrated blade cut the logs into 1- to 1 1/2-inch slices.

Place the slices on a baking sheet and bake for around 10-15 minutes, then turn the slices over and bake for another 10-15 minutes. (Ten minutes each side should be fine for 1-inch pieces; thicker slices like these will take longer.)

When the pieces are nice and firm to the touch they're done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly, then place in an airtight container. The biscotti will last a couple weeks.

It's always best to wait a couple days before eating the biscotti. No matter how many different kinds I've made over the years, the flavors always are enhanced over time. I usually wait at least 48 hours before serving. This batch is for Saturday night, after the osso buco I've got planned (today's Thursday, by the way).

See, you've got plenty of time.