Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mister Batali's oxtail ragú

Show of hands. How many of you have ever awoken on a brilliant Sunday morning in the deep of Autumn, obsessed not with love or leisure but with oxtails?


This urge of mine arose completely out of the blue, mind you. I had gone to bed harboring no plans whatever of cooking oxtails the next day. The subject had not come up in conversation, and there wasn't a single oxtail in the freezer crying out to be had at.

Thing is, I listen to the voices inside my head. Always. By 9 a.m. I had spoken to every butcher within 30 miles who was at work on Sunday and well before noontime the oxtails and I were back at the house, safe and sound.

I know. I worry about me too sometimes.

An oxtail ragú recipe in Mario Batali's "The Babbo Cookbook" is pretty simple and so I went with that. This is about 5 pounds of oxtails, liberally seasoned with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Dredge the oxtails in all-purpose flour.

In a Dutch oven sear the meat on both sides in very hot olive oil until golden brown. This will need to be done in a couple of batches, as five pounds won't fit all at once, not even in my most gigantic (13-quart) Le Creuset.

Remove the meat and set aside. Add two sliced onions and saute until softened but not browned.

Add 4 cups of red wine (I used an inexpensive aglianico), one cup of a simple tomato sauce, 2 cups chicken stock, and fresh thyme. Let this come to a boil, then add the meat, cover and place in an oven preheated to 375 F.  (Note on the tomato sauce: I always have some around. If you don't, and aren't in the mood to make some, I'd suggest adding a couple garlic cloves, some herbs and one or two diced carrots when sauteing the onions and then adding canned crushed tomatoes at this stage. I'm sure that'll work out just fine.)

In about 90 minutes check and see if the meat is nicely softened. If it isn't just let it cook a little longer. This batch was done in 2 hours, at which point I removed the oxtails from the sauce, allowed them to cool, then picked the meat off the bones.

All that's left to do now is add the meat back to the sauce and reheat.

That first night I served the ragú over potato gnocchi, which you already saw above. But a couple days later I went with a fresh cavatelli.

The ragú was even better after a couple days. But these things usually are, which is why I'll normally cook something like this at least a day in advance.

Unless, of course, the voices inside my head command otherwise.

Oxtail Ragú
From Mario Batali's "The Babbo Cookbook"

5 lbs oxtail, cut into 2-inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
Flour, for dredging
2 medium onions, sliced 1/4-inch thick
4 cups red wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups basic tomato sauce
2 tbs. fresh thyme leaves
Pecorino romano, for grating

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Trim the excess fat from the oxtails and season liberally with salt and pepper.
In a 6- to 8-quart, heavy bottomed casserole or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until it is just smoking. Quickly dredge the oxtails in flour and sear them on all sides until browned, turning with long-handled tongs. Remove the browned oxtail to a plate and set aside.
Add the onions to the same pan and cook them until slightly browned. Add the wine, stock, tomato sauce and thyme, and bring the mixture to a boil. Return the oxtails to the pot, submerging them in the liquid, and return the pot to a boil. Cover and cook in the oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone.
Remove the pan from the oven and carefully remove the oxtails with long-handled tongs. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and shred into small pieces with a fork.  Discard the bones.
With a small ladle, skim the fat from the surface of the sauce. Return the shredded meat to the pot.  Place over medium high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and allow the sauce to reduce to a very thick ragú. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve over the pasta of your choice, topped with grated Pecorino.

Friday, November 23, 2012

With friends like these...

The picture doesn't exactly capture the moment, but what a moment it was.

This is my first plate from yesterday's Thanksgiving feast, held about a mile from here, at the home of my friends Scott and Giovani. There are tasty brussels sprouts, whole roasted carrots, delicious oyster stuffing, super-smooth mashed potatoes, and a very well turned out bit of fresh turkey.

The moment is about the manicotti, though. Because they were a closely guarded secret among all of the guests who attended the elegant holiday bash.

All of them except for me.

Long story short, my friends had read the piece that I had written about my mother's Thanksgiving manicotti. And so to honor her — a woman who they had never met, by the way — they decided to add an extra multi-step item to an already labor-intense menu.

I won't embarrass my friends by going on here, okay. They wouldn't want that.

Just so long as they know that I consider this moment to be an extraordinary gift. And always will.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A very Meatball Thanksgiving

I know. This holiday is all about the bird.


Should you wish to take a page from the Meatballs' Thanksgiving tradition, then you had best be prepared to add a pasta course to the festivities.

And not just any pasta course.

My mother (she's the one at the far left, swigging what appears to be a pink bubbly) always made manicotti on Thanksgiving. Those are probably hers on the far right, below the turkey and a fork's lift away from her eldest brother Joe. Uncle Joe is sitting next to his father, my grandfather, John.

There are a lot of Johns in my family. One is sitting next to my grandfather, come to think of it. I wasn't yet born on this Thanksgiving Day, but had I been there might be three Johns at the table, not two. If you count middle names, that is. And were I seated with this particular group.

See, there are likely two or three other tables lined up that aren't visible here, each crowded with as many people. Tight quarters considering that the apartments my grandfather's six children lived in back then, with their own growing families, were on the small side. I can't even tell whose apartment this holiday is taking place in because the six flats in our family's side-by-side tenement houses all looked the same.

Anyhow, you didn't come here looking for a history lesson. And so I'll wish you all a very, very happy holiday and leave it at that.

And if you are inclined to make with the manicotti, here's the recipe that I learned from watching mom. It's from a post that I did here early this year, but repeating it now seemed appropriate.

My family prefers crepes over pasta shells. The thinner and lighter the crepe the better the manicotti, so use a blender for the mix, and keep adding milk if it thickens as you're working. The full recipe is below.

A super hot omelette pan doused in butter is the way to a great crepe. I keep a bowl of melted butter next to the stovetop and apply it with a bristle brush before pouring the crepe mix into the pan.

To make thin crepes you must barely cover the surface of the pan with the mixture. Once the crepe is set and drying flip it over with a spatula. If your pan is properly heated this won't take very long at all.

Here's what the cooked side should look like. After flipping the crepe it only takes maybe 30 seconds more to finish the other side.

This is a pretty traditional filling, made with ricotta and fresh mozzarella.

A simple fold from one side and then the other does the trick.

Lay a light dose of tomato sauce in a baking pan, line the manicotti side by side, then add some more sauce on top. Cover in aluminum foil and throw into the oven, preheated to about 375 degrees F. Remove the foil after around 25 minutes and continue baking.

After another 15 or 20 minutes the manicotti should be done.

This being Thanksgiving, one or two of these babies apiece should do the trick.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Makes about 24

For the crepe
2 cups flour
4 extra large eggs
2 1/4 cups milk (more as needed)
Pinch of salt
Mix together in a blender until fully incorporated. 

For the filling
2 lbs ricotta
1 lb fresh mozzarella
1 extra large egg
1/3 cup grated Romano cheese
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl add the ricotta. With a wide-cut grater grate the mozzarella over the ricotta. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

My brother's pancakes

There's a lot that I don't know about my brother Joe.

How he came to take up the game of golf has always mystified me. Where he learned to handicap thoroughbred racing so expertly I have never entirely understood either. What allowed him to believe, albeit briefly and very early this past spring, that the Mets might have a respectable 2012 season? That I shall never know.

Until a few days ago I also had no idea what an astoundingly good pancake maker my brother is. It has been more than a week since I cleaned my last plate of Joe's crisp and fluffy breakfast treats and still I am thinking about them. A lot.

Of the five days that I stayed with my brother in Queens recently he cooked me his "famous pancakes" twice.

Hell, I didn't even know that he had a famous pancake.

Naturally I had to find out the secret to my new favorite breakfast entree and so in between stacks I asked Joe to explain, slowly, so that I could commit the recipe to paper.

"Easy," my brother said, dropping a fresh slab of butter onto a red-hot pan. "One cup Aunt Jemima pancake mix, three-quarters of a cup of milk, an egg, and about two tablespoons of olive oil."

"That's it?"

"That's it," Joe said pouring another three pancakes' worth of his mix into the sizzling-hot butter. "Oh, and be sure to use an electric mixer. Makes a big difference."

I wondered whether my brother was holding out on me, keeping his famous pancake recipe to himself. The olive oil wasn't exactly what you'd expect to find listed on the recipe panel of a mass-market dry mix box. But could it really propel Jemima to such greatness? After all, these pancakes were dissolve-in-your-mouth extraordinary.

After a few days of pondering, and an unsuccessful attempt to recreate Joe's perfect pancakes in my own kitchen, I had my answer.

And it wasn't the oil.

My brother is just the type of guy who does things really well or not at all. It's probably the reason why so many people depend on him. He is smart and strong and very, very able. His heart is good.

When disaster struck our family recently Cousin Susie, who was forced from her home after Hurricane Sandy, told me that the one guy at the very top of everybody's wish list for aid and comfort was Joe.

Which was no surprise to me. Like his pancakes (or his clam sauce, come to think of it) my brother is the best that there is.

Just so we're clear.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sandy joins the family

This is not staged. I know that the picture is real because I took it myself a couple of days ago. It is a normal parking sign that is still attached to an upright, regulation-height traffic pole. The pole is sunk into a concrete sidewalk on a quiet working-class street in the town of Long Beach, New York. The misplaced beach sand that nearly covers the sign was deposited last week by the devastating "super storm" known as Sandy.

Many of my family members were affected by the storm. Several were hurt quite badly. Eight haven't been able to occupy their homes since Sandy hit; four of them probably won't ever occupy those homes again. One cousin saw a loved one drown in a first-floor apartment in Howard Beach, Queens, a neighborhood that is some distance from the actual Atlantic shoreline.

My brother and cousins have worked nonstop for more than a week cleaning up after Sandy. I joined them five days ago now, but it appears we have done about all that we can do and so I may be heading back home to Maine in a day or so.

These pictures—this entire post actually—hasn't a thing to do with this blog's focus. But it is all that I have got to report to you this week.

This is the back seat of my car. It and the front passenger seat are filled with groceries that I delivered to relatives in Long Island and Queens last week. In the trunk are coolers packed with milk and eggs and meats and fresh fruits and vegetables, plus three canisters carrying around fifteen gallons of gasoline for those who needed it.

Gasoline continues to be a coveted and extremely hard-to-locate commodity here. More than a week after the storm hit and only the most determined have a chance of landing a few gallons of fuel. If you can find a station that has any.

This I snapped during a much-needed break one afternoon. On the horizon you can see the tankers heading to deliver oil to area refineries. We counted more than a dozen in our field of vision.

Long Beach, home to three of the worst-hit members of our family, remains uninhabitable. Military vehicles patrol the streets day and night; only residents with local I.D. and escorted work crews are allowed in. The place is under curfew. Not a single residence or business has electric power; for days there wasn't even running water. Authorities say that the mountains of sand on the streets and sidewalks is contaminated.

This is the single place in the entire town of Long Beach that is open for business.

You run across this a lot. However, the majority of vehicles in town were totaled from having been under water, not by catching fire.

At the height of the storm several feet of water rushed through these towns, pretty much devastating anything at the basement, ground, and in some cases first floor levels. I have never seen more rubble in my life.

This will be a hard sell. And for a long time.

The rules on this block are written not by the authorities but by those of us who occupy it, if only for a while.

More than once did the angels appear. On this particular late afternoon, after a full day of work and with no food in our bellies, we were visited by this one. She had driven a long way to find a place where she could fill her car with food to hand out to her neighbors and the people who were helping them.

Speaking of angels and doughnuts, Aunt Laura made us some of hers last night. The apartment she lives in, in her daughter Ursula and son-in-law Ben's house, is occupied by several displaced family members, and has been the gathering place where all of us have dinner together each day. Laura's husband, my uncle Dominic, passed recently, which was a big blow to all of us who loved him. His and Laura's granddaughter Jennifer is one of the people living with Laura temporarily, along with her father and mother and two of their cats. She tells me that her grandmother told her that she thinks Dominic may have left in order to make room for all of them. And, knowing Dominic, maybe he did.