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!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pasta with chestnuts & bacon


For reasons best left unspoken, I found myself staring into the fridge Sunday evening around seven having no plan whatsoever.

As will happen when a half-pound of thick-slice, locally cured bacon is in reach an idea took shape—aided of course by the vacuum-packed chestnuts I had been eyeing earlier.

And you thought that I spent a lot of time planning the stuff I share with you here.


Dice and saute the bacon by itself for a while, then add a small onion or shallot, three or so garlic cloves and (if you like, which I do) a little hot pepper.


When the bacon is cooked and everything else is softened add at least 1/2 cup of chopped chestnuts, more if you like, and stir.


Add some chopped parsley.


Then add your cooked pasta (a half-pound here, and boiled about a minute less than to doneness), grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino over it, and add maybe a ladle full of the (well-salted) pasta water to moisten.


Turn the heat up to high and incorporate, allow some of the pasta water to be absorbed and evaporate, then turn off the heat and quickly serve.


Next time I make this stuff it'll be on purpose, I swear.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 90-second pasta

If you measure your life not in hours or days or years but in mere moments, well, have I got a pasta for you!

Just last year the Italian pasta maker Rustichella d’Abruzzo came out with a spaghetti that actually cooks in just 90 seconds. The pasta is aptly named “Rapida” and, as you might expect, there was just no way that I could not take it for a test boil.

The spaghetti is made in Italy using a special bronze plate that creates a grooved and hollowed-out shape. The thinking here is that the boiling water can penetrate this pasta’s gluten and starch much faster than with other spaghetti. And there’s nothing unusual about the pasta’s makeup; all it’s made from is semolina and water.


Rustichella is a very fine Italian pasta maker, but I was not expecting very much to come of its new and, in my mind, unnecessarily speedy approach to cooking.

But they surprised me. Not only did the Rapida cook in under two minutes but it tasted the way a good pasta is supposed to taste. I tried it plain and with tomato sauce, and enjoyed the flavor both ways.

The only thing I’d caution about is using the Rapida in dishes where pasta water is an ingredient, or where finishing off in a hot pan is crucial. The pasta isn’t in the water long enough to infuse it with any flavor, and additional heat from cooking in the pan is apt to quickly overcook the spaghetti.

If minutes are that important to you, I'd say give the stuff a try.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Beet ravioli with poppy seeds

Don’t let the crappy picture fool you. These were some of the best ravioli I’ve had in a while. The reason the picture sucks is, well, I made the things on Valentine’s Day, see. Lots of great wines were sampled prior to eating time and so I was not, shall we say, in a mood to responsibly handle a camera. I managed to freeze a few ravioli and shoot the following day, but during boiling they did not hold up so well.

What are you gonna do!

Casunziei, as these ravioli are known, are normally made in a half-moon shape, but as you can see I went in another direction. The beet and ricotta filling is a nice combo, but it’s really the butter sauce and poppy seeds that make this dish really special. The first time I had casunziei was many years ago, at Al Di La in Brooklyn. It’s their signature dish. If you’re ever around you must give it a try (their Trippa alla Toscana too, but that’s another story entirely).

Anyhow, other than the part about making your own pasta dough, and of course being comfortable filling and shaping ravioli, these casunziei are super easy.


It all starts with the beets, and I scored one large enough to handle the whole pasta course. Roast it in aluminum foil until done; when cooled peel off the skin.


There's a lot of moisture inside a beet, and it's best to get rid of it. Most recipes call for running the beets lightly through a food processor but I just used my hands over a colander.


I even used a paper towel to make sure the beets wouldn't be wet.


This turned out to be around a cup's worth of beets. In a bowl I added the beets, 1/2 pound of ricotta, a scant 1/4 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and salt and pepper to taste. Most recipes call for the addition of eggs here, but I went without.


Then just mix it up, like so.


If you're a pasta maker then you know the drill. If you aren't, just do it. It's not as difficult as it looks.


What's the worst that could happen?


They could wind up looking like this, or maybe they won't. You'll never know unless you try.

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. — Goethe


Saucing these things could not be simpler. Just melt a lot of butter in a large pan that can accommodate the ravioli you're making. When the ravioli are done boiling scoop them out of the water and add them to the pan, along with enough (well-salted) pasta water to keep things moist. Grate some more Reggiano over the ravioli and sprinkle a good amount of poppy seeds over them too. You can add a little more cheese and poppy seeds once you've plated.

And that is that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Toni's baccala


I’m in love with a woman who is not my wife. We met at a friend’s beach house in Rhode Island last summer, and within minutes I knew that I was hooked. We cooked and ate good food together, sat by the sea and watched fishing boats go by, sipped wine outside in the evening near the roaring fire pit and talked easily and without pretense.

My wife knows about all of this. Says she can understand how a man like me could fall so hard and so deeply for a woman like Toni. I married well. If the tables were turned I’m not so certain I could be so understanding.

I received a letter from Toni recently. She told me that she missed seeing me on my last trip down to New Bedford and that she looked forward to the next time we might meet again, perhaps this summer at the shore. In the letter was a recipe that she thought I might like to try preparing, a Portuguese baccala (salt cod) dish that Toni said was among her favorites. It’s made with cauliflower and potatoes and onions, not a way that I have ever had salt cod before. “Let me know if you like it,” she wrote.


I didn’t like it Toni, I loved it.

You too.

See you when the snow melts. I hope.

Toni’s Baccala
Salt Cod with Cauliflower & Potatoes

1 head cauliflower
1 1/2 pounds salt cod (soaked and ready to cook)
1 large onion
2 large potatoes
1-2 quarts chicken stock, as needed

Cut the potatoes into large cubes, partly boil then set aside.
Cut the codfish into cubes around an inch thick.
Break apart the cauliflower head and slice the onion, then saute in olive oil in a large pot for around 10 minutes.
Add 1 quart of stock, the potatoes and the cod. Add more stock as needed.
Simmer for around 30 minutes and serve.