Sunday, October 30, 2011

How to make pancetta

I hope that you enjoy looking at pictures and captions. Because I have got an absolute ton of them for you here.

Making pancetta (basically Italian salt-cured bacon) at home is simple. It only takes a little bit of prep time; the rest of the time you are waiting for the meat to cure and then dry. I'm going to run through every one of the steps, if you don't mind.

In case you didn't know, pancetta (just as any bacon) is made from pork belly. You can certainly start out by using just a small slab of belly, but here we are making a big old mess of pancetta. What we have here is a whole belly, with the ribs still attached. It weighed in at about 14 pounds total. (Hey, I have people who have come to expect their allotment of every batch that I make.)

Here is the belly after the ribs have been cut away. You can see by the fold on the left that the skin is on (normally the case when you buy a whole belly), but it needs to be removed.

Once the skin is removed it's time to apply the cure. (Because I am always fiddling with the actual cure, I've decided to reprint the complete recipe and instructions for making pancetta from a reliable source, the book "Charcuterie," by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn; they are at the very end of this post.) This pic shows the cure already spread onto the fat side of one piece of the belly, but the other piece needs it too, as does the meat side of the belly. The reason I've cut the belly in half is because a whole one is too large to roll. If you were not going to roll it, then leaving the belly in one piece would be fine.

After applying the cure all around, place each piece in its own big plastic bag and put into the fridge. They stay in the fridge for at least a week, often longer. And I flip the pieces over once a day. This batch was in the fridge for 11 days.

The next step is to run the belly under cool water and clean off all the cure mixture, then dry it well using paper towels. Once it's clean and dry you put down a good dose of coarse black pepper on the meat side of the belly. Then you roll it nice and tight, the tighter the better actually, to prepare it for tying.

Once it's rolled and tied it's time to hang it in a cool place for at least two weeks.

So that we could also see an example of the slab type of pancetta I didn't roll the other half of the belly. When you do it this way, though, it's good to wrap the belly in cheesecloth before hanging it. The flat, slab-like pancetta hangs in a cool place, just like the rolled, but it's ready quicker.

This one was ready in about 10 days.

Nice, huh? I like this batch a lot. The flavors are both rich and mild at the same time.

Here is the rolled pancetta, ready to be cut down and used. It hung in the garage for about 23 days.

I usually slice rolled pancetta into pieces around an inch thick.

Then I vacuum pack each piece individually. The ones that I don't give away to my demanding family and friends go into the freezer, as the pancetta lasts longer that way.

The only trouble is that I do not get to keep that many of the pieces for myself.

Maybe I should just shut my big mouth the next time a new batch of the stuff is ready.

From “Charcuterie”
by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
This is for a 5-pound piece of pork belly, skin removed

For the dry cure
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons pink salt (see Note below)
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons juniper berries, crushed with the bottom of a small saute pan
4 bay leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 or 5 sprigs fresh thyme

1. Trim the belly so that its edges are neat and square.
2. Combine the garlic, pink salt, kosher salt, dark brown sugar, juniper berries, bay leaves, nutmeg, thyme, and half the black pepper in a bowl and mix thoroughly so that the pink salt is evenly distributed. Rub the mixture all over the belly to give it a uniform coating over the entire surface.
3. Place the belly in a 2-gallon Ziploc bag or in a covered nonreactive container just large enough to hold it. Refrigerate for 7 days. Without removing the belly from the bag, rub the belly to redistribute the seasonings and flip it over every other day (a process called overhauling).
4. After 7 days, check the belly for firmness. If it feels firm at its thickest point, it's cured. If it still feels squishy, refrigerate it on the cure for 1 to 2 more days.
5. Remove the belly from the bag or container, rinse it thoroughly under cold water, and pat it dry. Sprinkle the meat side with the remaining black pepper. Starting from a long side, roll up the pork belly tightly, as you would a thick towel, and tie it very tightly with butcher's string at 1- to 2-inch intervals. It's important that there are no air pockets inside the roll. In other words, it can't be too tightly rolled. Alternately, the pancetta can be left flat, wrapped in cheesecloth, and hung to dry for 5 to 7 days.
6. Using the string to suspend it, hang the rolled pancetta in a cool, humid place to dry for 2 weeks. The ideal conditions are 50°F to 60°F (8°C to 15°C) with 60 percent humidity, but a cool, humid basement works fine, as will most any place that's out of the sun. Humidity is important: If your pancetta begins to get hard, it's drying out and should be wrapped and refrigerated. The pancetta should be firm but pliable, not hard. Because pancetta isn't meant to be eaten raw, the drying isn't as critical a stage as it is for items such as prosciutto or dry-cured sausages. But drying pancetta enhances its texture, intensifies its flavor, and helps it to last longer.
7. After drying, the pancetta can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for 3 weeks or more, or frozen for up to 4 months. Freezing makes it easier to slice thin.
Note: Pink salt, a curing salt with nitrite, is called by different names and sold under various brand names, such as tinted cure mix or T.C.M., DQ Curing Salt, and Insta Cure #1. The nitrite in curing salts does a few special things to meat: It changes the flavor, preserves the meat's red color, prevents fats from developing rancid flavors, and prevents many bacteria from growing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Salt-baked whole fish

There are fishes buried under there. Three of them. Branzino, if you must know, a type of bass that came from the Mediterranean Sea.

They are encased in a mountain range-like mass of kosher salt. More important, I am pretty certain that these fish are the moistest that I have eaten.

They were baked for about 20 minutes in this wood-burning oven, but any oven will do. The temperature only needs to be in the 400 F range. 

The full recipe is below, but this is what you will see after cracking open the salt crust once the fish is cooked.

And if you enlarge this pic you will see how moist the flesh turned out to be.

I had always meant to try this cooking method but was somehow convinced that it would be too big a production. It wasn't, I swear. The only downside, if you want to call it that, is the large amount of salt you'll go through, which does add to the dish's cost.

Other than that, it's a major cool method of preparing a super moist fish. Dramatic, too, if you're out to show off for your friends. (Speaking of friends: Yes, Fred, this might work with one of those big-ass stripers you show off on FishTales from time to time. I'd just cook it longer. And maybe buy more salt. And a giant-sized pan.)

Salt-baked whole fish
2 whole 1 lb. fish, cleaned and gutted (branzino is what I used)
4-6 lemon slices, cut crosswise
4 rosemary sprigs
1/3 cup chopped parsley
2 or more 3-lb. boxes of kosher salt
Cold water as needed

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Pour a 1/2-inch layer of the kosher salt onto a baking sheet.
Set both of the fish on top of the salt and stuff each one with the lemon, rosemary and parsley.
In a bowl, pour about a box of the salt, then mix in a little cold water, enough to moisten the salt just enough to hold it together. Don't make it wet; the idea here is that you'll be molding the mix around the fish to create a thick crust.
Pile the salt onto the fish and form a mold around them. If the salt mix isn't enough to cover the fish completely make some more mix with the leftover salt.
After the fish are properly coated place them in the oven for 20 minutes.
Break open the salt crust, remove the fish and serve whole or filleted, whichever you prefer. You could also drizzle some olive oil or further season the flesh if you like. I didn't. The branzino were plenty flavorful just as they were.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pasta and chickpeas

The vegetarian crowd is gonna dig this, I think.

(You with me here, Mavis? Kitty? How about you, Miss Glodes?)

Not only are chickpeas high in protein, meaning that this is a pretty damned solid dinner entree nutrition-wise. But it's also a super tasty and satisfying dish. A lot more so than those bland-as-hell (afterthought) pasta concoctions that I see so many restaurants passing off as legitimate menu choices for non-meat eaters.

No kidding, I am craving a bowl of this stuff right now. It really is that good.

Almost as appealing is how easy it is to make. All I did was prepare an aglio y olio sauce, but with a good dose of hot pepper and, of course, the chickpeas. Hell, I even used the canned chickpeas, that's how fast it all came together.

I keep telling you people that I am a simpleton. Perhaps now you will believe me.

Pasta and chickpeas

4-6 garlic cloves, chopped
4 anchovy fillets
1 hot pepper, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 lb. rigatoni (or pasta of your choice)
1/2 cup (or more) well-salted pasta water, reserved from rigatoni

In a large pot of well-salted water, cook the pasta until almost done (remember to reserve some of the water).
Saute the garlic, anchovy and pepper in an ample amount of the oil until soft.
Add the chickpeas and saute until warmed through, about five minutes.
Add the cooked pasta to the pan, as well as the 1/2 cup of water, and cook at a high heat for about two minutes more, then serve.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mr. Potato Head

Even a meatball knows that this tuber has about as much chance of curing an ailment as the New York Mets have of suiting up for games next October.

Ain't gonna happen.

Facts, however, never were a match for my mother. And I can prove it.

Her middle son, you see, suffered from excruciating, hellish, unbearable, utterly debilitating migraine headaches when he was very young. I know that they were excruciating and hellish and unbearable and debilitating because neither of my two brothers were themselves able to land the number-two spot in our parents' procreative three-pack.

One afternoon, when none of the medicines prescribed by the fancy head specialists on Eastern Parkway were working, mom decided to take matters into her own flour-dusted hands. (She had been in the middle of making her luscious homemade cavatelli for that night's supper.)

The scene, as they say, is etched in my brain. It was a bright, sunny day, way too bright for a migraine sufferer to bear. I was laying in bed, weeping and waiting for the medicines to do their work, even though it was clear to me that the medicines were not going to be doing their work today.

"Any better, hon?"

The wet kitchen towel draped over my eyes prevented me from getting a visual, but the concern in my mother's voice was unmistakable.

"I think I'm gonna throw up," I muttered, and then I did.

A short while later mom brought a baking tray into the room. On the tray was a crisp, very white cotton towel folded lengthways and in half.

"You've suffered enough," she said, sitting on the bed next to me. "This will make you better, I promise."

Quickly she unfolded the towel to reveal its contents.

"Close your eyes," mom told me, "and just be still."

"But ma," I said as incredulously as a young meatball could manage, "those are..."

With an index finger across my lips she gently pressed my head back onto the pillow where, she appeared quite certain, it belonged.

"I know what they are. Just do as I say now and close your eyes and be still."

Of course, this was an impossible directive.

I ask you, what if your own mother had come to your aid in an hour of extraordinary need — packing a goddamn kitchen towel filled with thickly sliced raw potatoes!

Would you be able to close your eyes and just be still?

And so, even in a compromised state, I managed to bully my poor mother into having to defend the kindness and concern she had showed toward me.

"We put the potatoes on your forehead and on your eyelids," she explained, patiently at first. "Then, when the potatoes turn dark you'll be all better."

"How does that make me better, ma?"

"It draws all of the poison out of you, that's how. The darkness is the poison. Inside of you it makes you feel sick, but inside the potato it just makes it black. Understand?"

This might be a good time for all of you parents out there to pour yourself a good stiff one, because I am about to lay bare an inner demon, evidenced in certain young people I am told, that can lay waste to the most loving and selfless of mothers.

"C'mon, ma," I said as sarcastically as I knew how. "After awhile won't the potatoes turn dark anyway, just because they've been out in the open?"

My mother scores major points for refraining from giving her middle figlio ingrato a good smack. As well as for proceeding with the potato-on-forehead-and-eyelids experiment that she so desperately prayed would make her child feel well again.

No, I am certainly not proud of myself, okay. 

As for the transfer of dark poisons from my body to a potato that day? 

Let's just say that the cavatelli that evening had a far more soothing effect. And that the Mets still aren't going to be playing any baseball next October.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pumpkin & ricotta gnocchi


Hey, it's October. What were you expecting, spring peas?

This is the first time I have used a pumpkin to make gnocchi, and so we are flying a little blind here. I also didn't use a recipe. The ingredients seemed to come together naturally.

It started out by clearing away all the seeds. This is a Tonda Padana pumpkin (or winter squash, if you prefer); grown by a friend locally from Italian seeds that I provided her. I planted the seeds also, but didn't get a single pumpkin.

I decided to roast the pumpkin, and to do that I placed the two sides face down in water inside a roasting pan. This went into the oven, at about 375 degrees F, for about an hour, or until the flesh was very soft.

Here's the cooked pumpkin, ready to have the flesh scooped out. (It was on the watery side, and so I let the flesh sit in a colander for about an hour to drain.)

Here's what I wound up with for ingredients (clockwise from bottom left): 3 cups of pumpkin; 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; 1 lb. of fresh ricotta; and 1/8th cup of finely processed amaretti cookies (I used the Vitamix on that). There's also some nutmeg sprinkled on top, as well as salt and pepper.

Before adding an egg, taste the mix to see if you like it and adjust seasonings if needed.

Though others would probably suggest adding flour to the entire mixture, I prefer working in small batches. I put a bit of flour on my work surface, scooped out some of the mix, then very delicately worked it all together.

It's critical to not work the dough very hard. My preference is to go as light on the flour (and the mixing and the rolling) as I can get away with while still getting the dough to hold together.

You can see that these gnocchi are barely worked at all. This makes it a little difficult to handle but the payoff, I think, is well worth it.

Here are the gnocchi after they were quick fried in very hot extra virgin olive oil. They are served with just a little brown butter and sage, plus crumbled Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Definitely among the lightest, most delicate gnocchi I've ever had.

From now on I will be supplying these pumpkin seeds to as many friends as I can convince to take them.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Mister Mamma

This might go a lot more smoothly if you closed your eyes and thought about your mother in her most motherly of aprons, not me. We are, after all, discussing one of the top comfort foods of all time: pastina.

To refer to this as a recipe would be an extreme overstatement. The only three ingredients here are pastina, cheese and butter. If you can boil water then you are pretty much good to go.

Parents have been serving bowls full of pastina to their kids for generations. Just look at the stuff, would you: the tiny star-shaped pasta has got bambini written all over it! 

But I don't have any kids, see, and still, there is always pastina in the house.

Why? Because it is good for what ails you, that's why. I guarantee you that a bowl of pastina with butter and grated cheese (Romano is best, I think) will make you feel better the next time you are feeling under the weather or simply kinda blue.

It helps if the weather is on the cool and rainy side, and if you are curled up on the sofa underneath a blankie.

I say this because it was under just these conditions that I prepared this magical dish for a not-altogether-well associate of my own just days ago. No sooner had I cleared away the empty bowl off of the coffee table that the mood in the house improved.

And I didn't even have to put on an apron.