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.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The confession



I'm gonna hate myself for doing this.

Months from now somebody may remind me what I have said here today. I will wonder what could I possibly have been thinking.

And yet here we are.

I was not the greatest son to my mother. An okay one, not a burden or an embarrassment, I don't think. I managed to avoid getting arrested, for instance, or winding up in the ER after a gang brawl—neither an insignificant accomplishment where I grew up.

But nor was I the child that a person might wish for when contemplating a life of parenting. I never applied myself to schooling, failed to excel at sports, refused to participate in most organized social events. More hurtful to my mother, a devout and loving Roman Catholic, I rejected her church outright and generally did all that I could do to live by my own rules, not by hers—which is of course to say by no rules at all.

These are not the things weighing on me currently, however. It's far worse than that. Recently I admitted—aloud and in front of more than one attentive dinner guest—that I believe myself to be a more accomplished cook today than my mother was when she was alive.

And it's eating me up inside.

Go ahead and laugh if you want. Only don't come crying to me when your spiritual crisis comes. A man is not supposed to think such a thing, let alone share it with others.

It's disgraceful. 

I blame two people for driving me to this crisis of character: the woman with whom I share a home (and a kitchen) and, to a lesser but still substantial degree, my friend Joe.

I'll deal with my friend first.

Long before my recent public indiscretion, months ago in fact, Joe made it his business to irritate me—by insisting that I rate my own Sunday Gravy against the one that my mother so lovingly produced for her family thousands of times. We were, as often happens, lounging in his backyard at the time, drinking Sicilian wines and watching boats of varying size and shape sail slowly and soundlessly past his home overlooking the Hudson River.

"Leave me alone," I barked at my friend. "What does it matter whose Gravy is better? Mine's mine and hers was hers, end of story."

Joe was once a fearsome, if perhaps hairless, wild predator beast in some past life, I'm sure of it. Tenacious does not begin to touch upon his manner.

"Of course it matters," he prodded, uncorking one of the Nero d’Avolas that I had brought to him for sampling. "And you know it does.”

One of the great frustrations with being a friend to me, as Joe will no doubt attest, is that when a topic arises that troubles me greatly, my ability to quash its progression fully is unmatched.

“Fine,” I said to my friend, as he refilled both of our glasses, mine a bit moreso than his own. “Debate this with yourself for a while and let me know how things turn out.”

At this point I wandered inside Joe’s house, which he shares with his lovely wife Joel, and downed a couple of beers with Ev, Joel’s father and a man whose company I enjoy quite a lot. Joe and I never discussed my mother’s Sunday Gravy again.

Then the other evening, over—what else?—a meal of ziti and meatballs and sausage and pork skin braciole, which I had prepared for several friends who’d come to dinner, the topic arose yet again.

“I know you would never admit to this,” said the all too familiar voice from the far end of the table, “but your meatballs and gravy really are better than your Sainted Mother’s.

“I loved that woman dearly,” the voice went on, “but at some point you need to own up to the fact that you’ve surpassed her as a cook. It really is okay, you know.”

Here I will argue, however cowardly and unconvincingly, that a man who wishes his feelings to remain private has no business consuming alcohol while in the presence of others. This can only lead to heartache and, I would argue strenuously, woe.

“Yes, mine are better,” I heard myself say, a burst of red rushing to ears and face and neck, I’m told. “Are you happy now?”

I, of course, have not been happy since. And may never be again. I tell myself that the shame will pass, hope that confession will, as mom might say, heal the soul. 

But I don’t believe any of that. I’m just not the man I was before. 

I'll have to learn to live with this.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Leftover panettone pudding


It takes a while for the holidays to become a memory around here. But this "pudding" might finally have done the trick.


How many boxes of panettone came my way this Christmas I really can't say, but I know that this is the last one because I repurposed it last night by turning it into a dessert. I can't take credit for the idea, only the execution. My Associate devised the notion of panettone bread pudding one Christmas a few years back, and a fine idea it was. If you have a panettone laying around, I'd suggest you give this pudding a try. It's even worth going out and buying one expressly for this purpose.


Any panettone will do, though this is the classic version, with raisins and candied fruit. Just start ripping away at it and you're on your way.


Break up the panettone entirely, layer it onto a baking sheet and let it toast in the oven for 10 or 15 minutes.


Like so.


I'm afraid you're on your own regarding exact measurements; after all, we're just hacking around here, and the amount of panettone you use will determine what needs to be added to it. But the basic idea is this: mix together some eggs (two here), a combination of heavy cream and milk (I don't know, maybe a cup and a half total in this batch, maybe more), some vanilla extract, cinnamon, and a touch of nutmeg. Or anything else you want to add, come to think of it; playing around is highly encouraged.


Once the eggs and cream mix is fully blended then just add in the toasted panettone until fully incorporated. The bread should completely absorb the liquid, and if the mix seems dry then add more milk or cream because it should be moist not dry.


That's the completed mixture right there.


My spring-form pans were too large for this batch and so I buttered the hell out of this number, and floured it too, in order to make sure it'd slide out easily after cooking. Then it went into the oven, preheated to 350 degrees F, and around 45 minutes later it was done.


It slid out of the pan just fine, by the way. And there's only one piece left, so if you're interested I'd suggest you hurry over here right away.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Olive oil orange cake


I liked this cake way before ever tasting it. But then I'm big on subtle (often citrus-based) endings to a meal, especially a big old multi-courser. Which, as it happens, is the kind of meal that I was asked to provide an ending to on this occasion.

The recipe isn't mine. It's from a woman named Deborah Mele, who authors the blog Italian Food Forever (yes, Joe, it had to be Italian!). I don't know the woman, but anybody who'd put together a cake like this chewy orange beauty is okay by me.


The whole recipe is reprinted below but basically you start by lopping off the end pieces of two seedless oranges.


Chop both oranges up into small hunks — yes, the peel and all — and then quickly pulse in a food processor. Add 1/3 cup olive oil and process some more, but don't let it get too smooth. You want there to be texture; to me, that's what makes this cake so good. I mean, it'd taste the same if the oranges were completely smooth, but without the chewiness of the pulp and peel, well, let's just say that I'd be a lot less interested.


As I said, the exact recipe is below, but here you've got your processed oranges, flour mixture, and also your eggs-and-sugar combo.


Fold everything together gently, and gradually (not all at once), until thoroughly combined.


Pour the mix into a buttered and floured 9-inch spring-form pan and place in the oven, preheated to 350 degrees F.


The recipe called for 50 to 60 minutes cooking time, and this took exactly 50 minutes. Go figure.


Allow the cake to cool, dust with powdered sugar and have at it.

Oh, and make sure to save a slice or two. It tastes even better the next day.


RECIPE
Olive Oil Orange Cake
Original recipe: Italian Food Forever

Ingredients:
2 small seedless oranges
1/3 cup olive oil (Despite instructions not to do so I used extra virgin)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Dash of salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (I only used a cup)

To garnish:
Powdered sugar

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and lightly grease a 9 inch spring-form pan.
Cut off a small slice of the thicker top and bottom parts of each orange, discard these pieces, and then cut the rest of the oranges (flesh and peel) into chunks.
Place them in a food processor and puree until blended but with some texture left.
Add the oil to the oranges and pulse until blended.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and soda and salt in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl beat the eggs until they are light and fluffy and then slowly add in the sugar.
Begin to add the egg mixture in three parts alternating with the orange mixture just stirring until combined. (Be careful not to over mix which will deflate the eggs and create a dense cake.)
Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or just until a cake tester comes out clean.
Cool before slicing.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Almost 100-layer lasagne


Don't bother counting. There are 70 layers here, not the 100 that were planned. That's what my friend Tom tells me anyway. And he was in charge of keeping track. Of course, he was drinking at the time.

We certainly had fun trying to recreate the 100-layer lasagne from Del Posto restaurant in New York. Eating it wasn't such a hardship either, but that's another story.


We need to get something out of the way before moving on. The hundred-layer lasagne isn't made with 100 pasta sheets. It's made with 50 "layers" of pasta and another 50 of sauce. I know. Sounds like cheating to me too.

Anyhow, we went with super-thin pasta sheets, the No. 1 setting on my pasta machine. The sheets are around a 6-inch square. Rather than using a lasagne pan we went with a round Dutch oven, the idea being that we'd need room around the assembled tower to position utensils for lifting it out when it was done. (This reasoning proved horribly flawed but I'll get to that in a minute.)


The sauces are a combination of Bolognese and b├ęchamel.


Everything was going pretty well for a while, I at the pasta machine, Tom at the layering station. I don't know what number of layers we're on at this point, but you can see that things are stacking up nicely.


Except that we're not as smart as we look. As the tower grew larger the weight of it wound up forcing the pasta sheets downward and outward. This might have been avoided by using skewers to keep things in place, but now is not the time to be pondering such things. What's done is done, no?


In the end this is what we wound up with, a round Dutch oven-shaped lasagne that required sculpting to mimic the square version that it was meant to be.

I'm hoping for better luck the next time Tom and I get an idea like this. If there is a next time.

Happy New Year everybody!