Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Making Fore Street's mussels

Things were pretty bleak when I moved to Maine. It was the mid-1990s. I will never forget one of the first restaurant meals here, at a place that is (mercifully) no longer. Sitting across from an associate I have grown quite fond of through the years, I detected a darkness descending right about the time our appetizers appeared. It lingered (the darkness, not the apps) and grew thicker through the entrees. Before the table was cleared I heard the awful words that I myself had been thinking ever since the thawed-and-heated bread showed up an hour or so earlier.

"What have we done?" said my companion, trying mightily to cover tears of despair. "What have we done?"

Months and many a sorrowful evening later a restaurant called Fore Street opened in a converted brick warehouse in Portland's Old Port district. Led by chef Sam Hayward the place became the best restaurant in town on the day that it opened. Nothing came close. Because nothing tried to.

But the urban-hip space and smartly sophisticated menu were so unlike anything Portland had seen that I was sure the restaurant would not last through the year. I was wrong, of course. Not only is Fore Street still with us but Hayward's brand of cooking helped to spark a real movement. For a city its size Portland offers some very decent grub. My companion and I still pine for the kind of restaurant scene that only a big city can provide, yes. But the deepest despair passed some years ago, and for that I must, in part, thank Hayward.

This is a roundabout way of copping out on cooking something for you all this week. I have been busy constructing stone retaining walls outside of my home and there has been no time whatsoever to cook — let alone write about cooking — food.

But that didn't stop my trusted companion from preparing me a killer meal after an especially trying day of manual labor last weekend: One of my favorite dishes from Fore Street's menu, the wood-roasted mussels. They have been on the menu since the day the place opened and, with a good crusty bread, have provided comfort to me many times.

If you like mussels I'd strongly suggest giving these a try. At the restaurant, for sure. But also at home.

Gotta run. There's another three or four ton of stone out back that still needs stacking. And I'm older than I was when I started this project last week.

Fore Street's Mussels Roasted with Almond-Garlic Butter 

1/2 cup salted roasted almonds, chopped
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon minced jalapeño
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/2 cup dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 450°. In a food processor, coarsely grind the almonds. Add the butter, garlic, shallot, parsley, lemon juice, lemon zest, jalapeño
and pepper; process until blended. Season the almond-garlic butter with salt.
Put the mussels in a large roasting pan and add the wine. Spoon the almond-garlic butter over the mussels and roast for 12 minutes, stirring the mussels and shaking the pan a few times, until all of the mussels have opened; discard any that do not open.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels to bowls.
Spoon the almond-garlic butter on top.
Serve with hot, crusty bread.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bean and broccoli soup

A vegetarian I am not. Never have been.

However, recently I caught a mess of crap from a pair of non-meat eaters of my acquaintance. (They called me a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal; can you believe that?) And so, in the interest of harmonious relations with the herbivore crowd, allow me to offer one of the best meat-eschewing soups that I know. 

(If you are wondering what possible use could such a recipe have at this time of year, then consider this: Last week it was cold enough and wet enough up here that, as the soup simmered on the stovetop at the waterfront cabin where I was visiting, I strolled down to a nearby ship's chandlery and bought myself a new fleece cap.)

I just gotta fly south one of these days.

So, you got your onions, your garlic, celery, pepper, like that, all sauteing in olive oil, then some dry vermouth.

Toss in the broccoli and the beans, along with a good chunk(s) of rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (I always have a bunch in the freezer).

Add water or vegetable stock and cook for about an hour.

And there you go.

No muss, no fuss. 

And no dragging of knuckles.

Bean and broccoli soup

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 whole garlic cloves
1 small onion, sliced
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 hot pepper, chopped
1/4 cup dry vermouth
2 cups cannelini beans (fresh or dried)
1 head broccoli
Rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano
8 cups water or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the garlic, onion, celery and hot pepper in oil until softened, then add vermouth and cook until it evaporates.
Add the broccoli, beans, cheese rind and liquid, then a good dose of salt and some ground pepper.
Cook about an hour and serve.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Peaches and wine

I don't know why so many peaches taste like Play-Doh nowadays, but if you happen to score any good ones this summer, I'd suggest setting a few aside and trying something a little different.

Different, that is, if you have never been to an authentic Italian-American street festival, or feast. If you have been to one, then surely you have come across the little plastic cups filled with sliced peaches and cheap red wine.

I've been enjoying these wine-soaked peaches since way before alcohol could legally pass my lips. I'm still eating (and drinking) them, so long as there are peaches around worth soaking.

Some people like to remove the skin on their peaches, others leave it on. I like it either way, and so what you've got here is a little bit of both.

As for which wine to pour, most any type you enjoy will do. This time I decided on a not-so-cheapo vino, an '08 Nebbiolo. All you do, by the way, is pour the wine over the peaches and allow them to sit for awhile. Then put a few slices into a small glass and pour some of the wine over them. You eat the peaches, you drink the wine. How simple is that?

Many people soak the peaches for half an hour and have at it, but I let them sit at least a couple hours, sometimes a lot longer, depending on their ripeness and, of course, the mood I happen to be in. This peach slice (along with its friends) soaked overnight in the fridge. And both it and the wine tasted swell.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Roasted corn polenta

I once knew a man named Dave. He had a PhD in food technology from MIT, held important jobs for the biggest companies on the planet, and was personally responsible for bringing several well-known food products to grocery store shelves throughout the world.

I liked Dave. And miss him now that he's gone.

In summer we ate a lot of sweet corn together. Dave's house was only a few miles from a very nice family farm in southern Connecticut, and whenever I would visit in sweet corn season there was never any doubt as to what we might eat.

Going to the farm with Dave was both enjoyable and, to be honest, a bit unnerving. Dave was a scientist to the core, a brilliant one at that. He made it his business to know, or at least estimate within acceptable margins before leaving his house, when the sweet corn would have been picked (twice a day at this particular farm as I recall). When we arrived at the farm Dave would always press to speak with the person who had direct knowledge of the corn's harvesting that day. This information, though mildly interesting to me, was crucial data to the scientist that I rode with.

Dave had a rule: The time between picking and eating should not exceed two hours. Go outside this limit and the corn's sweetness was, to Dave's mind, compromised, as sugars turn to starch immediately after an ear of corn is snapped from its stalk.

I have never doubted this rule. Because never in my life have I enjoyed corn more than the corn I enjoyed with Dave.

This roasted corn polenta we have here? I would never have served it to Dave. We're weeks away from sweet corn season in Maine, and so I had to rely on Florida farmers. It isn't often that I do this, what with how Dave's flawless corn-picking strategy has stayed with me all these years. However, I am not a patient man. I wanted me some corn. Right now.

I went the roasted-on-the-grill route because of the added depth in flavor it brings to the corn. Friends were coming over and so I grilled a dozen ears, allowed them to cool, then shaved off the kernels with a knife.

Into a food processor went about three-quarters of the kernels, along with a little less than half a pint of cream.

In a deep saute pan went a half stick of butter, the remaining kernels, salt and pepper to taste and the processed kernels. I also added some chicken stock to thin it out, as well as some milk later on. (An associate, whilst passing the stovetop on their way to an open wine bottle, tossed a pinch of fennel pollen into the  mix while I wasn't looking. How fennel pollen came to be in this person's fingers I cannot say.)

Not much to look at, but I couldn't stop eating the stuff. 

Dave might have even liked it. Had I managed to summon the nerve to present it to him.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to make fresh pasta

I'm not gonna lie to you, okay. This pasta thing? I'm only writing it to get some people off of my back. "You're always making fresh pasta," they whine incessantly (though not, I'll admit, incorrectly). "But you never show us how you make it."

I respond to such complaints in a variety of ways, not all of them pleasant, but over time have learned to be at once playful and disparaging. "What am I," goes a phrase I have come to like using on these individuals, "your friggin grandmother?"

No matter. The whining continues. I surrender. Let's make us some pasta.

The first step you see here is — hm, how shall I say this? — completely unnecessary. What I mean is that I always mix two or three different flours when making pasta. Here you've got three: some 00 (left), a superfine semolina (center), and a more traditional, coarser semolina. I could tell you that there are good reasons for mixing these flours, but most times there are not. It's just the way I do it, and it all depends on what mood I'm in.

Of course, most recipes call for plain old all-purpose flour, and who am I to argue with most recipes? You want to use all-purpose flour, be my guest. I am not a rational person when it comes to this particular subject. I mean, the place I go to stock up on all my flour (Coluccio's in Brooklyn) is 337 miles from my kitchen.

Does that sound rational to you?

No matter what flour(s) you wind up using, or how far you travel to get it, sifting is always a good idea, I think. If you're taking notes (poor you!) this is about 2 1/2 cups' worth (1 cup 00 flour, 1 cup fine semolina, 1/2 cup course semolina). I use my kitchen countertop (a manufactured stone) as a work surface but any hard surface or cutting board will do. Many old-timers insist on using a wood surface but this works just fine for me.

Sometimes I make an oval out of the flour, other times it's more like a racetrack (in honor of my degenerate gambler brother, if you must know); doesn't matter, so long as there's room for mixing. Here you have three jumbo eggs, plus another three yolks, though these amounts also vary with my mood. Hell, sometimes I'll just use a dozen or more yolks. I'm not trying to be difficult here. Pasta-making to me is fun and I enjoy experimenting. All that matters is that the dough comes out right, and there's not just one way to make that happen. (Oh, there's also a pinch of salt in there and a couple tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.)

Using either your fingers or a fork, mix the eggs and then start to gradually (in a circular motion) incorporate the flour.

Like so.

Once the mixture starts coming together I ditch the fork and start using a pastry scraper to finish the initial mixing. There's no need to be delicate here; just scrape along the work surface and keep cutting into the mixture so that it starts to form a mass.

Once you've got something that looks like this, it's time to start kneading. It's important to know that you don't need to concern yourself with over handling pasta dough. This isn't pizza dough, or pie crust, or any of those other things that require a delicate hand. Feel free to knead the dough as much and as long as you like, it won't hurt anything. If the dough seems wet, knead in some more flour; if it's too dry, wet your hands and knead in more moisture that way.

This is about what you're after, and it usually takes me around 10 minutes of kneading to get here. Pasta dough should not be sticky and wet, but it shouldn't be dry either. I know that doesn't tell you much, but it really does come down to practice. If you err on either side, wet is probably better because when you go to roll out the sheets you can start out on a floured surface, which can help get things into proper balance. Anyway, once you've got the dough where you want it, wrap it in plastic and throw it in the fridge overnight. You don't have to do this (letting the wrapped dough rest a couple hours at room temperature works fine). I just find that the overnight method allows for a more even distribution of humidity throughout the dough, and so I prefer it. If you do go my way just make sure to take the dough out of the fridge early enough so that it comes up to room temperature by the time you want to work with it.

This dough was refrigerated overnight, allowed to warm to room temp, touched lightly with a rolling pin, and is now ready to work. (Yes, I trimmed the edges just to make it look pretty for you.) Now it's time to make some decisions, based upon what type of pasta you're making and the kind of equipment you have. I use a commercial-grade electric pasta machine with a 9-inch roller that I snagged on eBay a couple years back. It was used pretty hard by a restaurant down south, but the price was right and it's the machine I really wanted. If you've come to a knucklehead like me seeking advice then I'm betting you don't own commercial equipment. And so I've snatched a couple videos off of YouTube, one demonstrating a commonly used manual pasta-making machine, another the pasta attachment for a KitchenAid electric mixer. (I own both, along with a bunch of others contraptions.) But first here are a few shots of my own machine at work.

If I'm making a lot of pasta at once, or if there are extra hands about to help out, I can work with big hunks of dough, which will produce really long sheets of pasta. I especially like to run long sheets when making lasagne; the noodle is wide enough so that each layer of pasta can be just one sheet.

More often I'll work with smaller, more manageable sheets, which means cutting strips off the large sheet of dough.

Thickness is a matter of preference, and every pasta machine will have several settings, from thick to very thin.

And don't be afraid to experiment going to a very thin setting. If your pasta dough is well made everything will be fine. Here you can see that I've rolled it out so thin that the sheet is becoming transparent. For a very delicate filled pasta this can be fabulous. Also, the thinner the noodle the less time it will take for the pasta to cook.

The reason I'm adding this shot is... well, there are a couple reasons. First, don't worry about having to buy a special drying rack for your cut pasta. I don't even own a rack; this spaghetti is sitting right on my countertop. Second, if you're worried about the pasta sticking together, then just sprinkle some course semolina over it. I don't use flour here, as I think the pasta absorbs it; the course semolina is a better way to go.

Well, that's about it. Here are the two videos I told you about. Any questions, you know where to find me. Just no whining, okay. Please?

The manual machine.

And the KitchenAid attachment.