Monday, March 25, 2013

Italian egg drop soup

Okay, so it's actually stracciatella. I went with the "egg drop" headline figuring that it might draw some more people in. What do you want from me?

Other than making your own chicken broth, which I highly recommend, there really is nothing to preparing this soup. In fact, with the holidays coming up this weekend, it would make a lovely beginning to the family meal.

Stracciatella (yes, chocolate chip ice cream goes by the same name in Italy) definitely ranks high on the comfort-food scale. I mean, c'mon. It's eggs, broth and cheese. What's more soothing than that?

I've always made this soup by instinct, not by recipe. But. Since I am suggesting that you serve it to your loved ones this holiday weekend I decided to play it safe and let somebody else stand in on the recipe front.

You're welcome.

And have a good holiday.

Roman Egg-Drop Soup
Adapted from Cooking the Roman Way, by David Downey

8 cups homemade chicken broth (you can use store bought but only do this if you're in a real hurry)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher or coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of nutmeg

Bring the broth to a slow boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer.

Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the cheeses and stir in the parsley. (I know people who also add a little breadcrumb at this stage.)

Whisk the boiling broth so it swirls clockwise. Pour in the egg mixture and whisk vigorously until the eggs tear into tiny shreds, about one minute. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste and also the nutmeg.

Ladle into soup bowls and serve immediately. (I'll often sprinkle some more cheese into the bowls, and always broken pieces of stale bread if I have it around.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dinner for one

The soul that sees beauty must sometimes walk alone.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Eat alone too. Trust me, I've been there.

I'm reluctant to go public with this, but for a lot of years now, when I am all by myself around the dinner hour, particularly after an emotionally trying day, I seek comfort inside, well... a six-ounce can of tomato paste.

There, I said it.

I toss a whole lot of olive oil and an onion into my favorite quick-fry pan, the one that I picked up at a used restaurant equipment warehouse years back. Once the onions are nice and soft I pop open a can of my favorite paste (Pastosa from New York) and apply anywhere from half to two-thirds of the contents to the saute.

Toss in some just-cooked pasta (what, you were expecting sanddabs?) and stir.

And there you have it. A beautiful thing.

Fine, don't eat it with me. Nobody else around here will either.

That headline is there for a reason, you know.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to make torrone

I never had a sister. I had Josephine. My cousin and I grew up in the same house. Her mother and my mother were sisters. The day we stopped living together, when Jo went away to college in Vermont, I cried. I never told her this.

Years later, when Jo got married in Italy, I wasn't there. She didn't attend my wedding either. It's not what you think. We didn't have a falling out. Nobody was invited to either of our weddings because nobody knew that they were taking place. What are the odds? While Jo was eloping in a palazzo in Florence, I was on a cliff overlooking the Penobscot Bay in Maine and doing the same thing. I thought about Jo that day. I wonder if she ever thought about me.

Jo and I only see each other three or four times a year these days, but I will always look upon her as a sister. She's an extraordinarily gifted baker and confectioner, you know. When I think of our family holidays I think about Jo's desserts and other treats. The gatherings just wouldn't be the same without them.

I came home to a package the other day, sent Priority Mail. Inside the box was a beautifully wrapped bar of Jo's homemade torrone. I love Jo's torrone. There was no note inside the package; it didn't need one. There was a crisp white sheet of paper with a neatly typed recipe for the confection. I called Jo to thank her, tell how how much I appreciated her gift, then asked if she would mind if I shared it with all of you. She said that that would be okay.


Makes four 8" x 2" x 1" bars

1 ½ cups clover or other mild honey
2 cups sugar
3 large egg whites
½ cup confectioners sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons orange flower water
¾ teaspoon pure almond extract
2 ½ cups roasted pistachios, almonds or a mix of both
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Edible rice paper

Line the bottom and sides of an 8- or 9-inch baking pan with the edible rice paper, trimming to fit.

To make the candy

Heat honey and sugar in a 5-quart heavy pot over low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Raise the heat a bit and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until it reaches 315 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Be careful that the syrup doe not burn.

When the syrup reaches 300 degrees F beat the egg whites and salt with a heavy-duty stand mixer until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.

When the syrup reaches 315 degrees F, remove from heat and stir until bubbles dissipate and temperature drops back to 300 degrees F.

With mixer running at low speed, slowly pour the syrup into the egg whites in a thin stream. The mixture will rise and then fall. Continue beating the mixture until thick. Add the orange flower water and almond extract and beat one minute. Add nuts.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and cover with another sheet of edible rice paper that has been trimmed to fit. Let stand at room temperature at least 8 hours.

Run a sharp knife around the edges of the pan and invert candy onto a cutting board. Leave the edible paper on and cut the torrone to desired size.

Wrap in parchment

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Grow your own polenta

Last summer, for reasons that I cannot entirely comprehend, I became gripped (gripped, I tell you!) by the idea of manufacturing my own polenta. I went so far as to track down and procure a corn seed designed specifically for this purpose, from a faraway source that I am not at liberty to disclose. (For real. The stuff has been determined to be illegal in the United States.)

Being the patient, do-things-the-right-way type, and knowing not a thing about growing corn or making polenta, I searched the mighty interweb seeking guidance but found none. And so, kernels in hand, I decided on a strategy not the least bit unfamiliar to me: I'd just wing it!

Thrilled doesn't quite describe my reaction to the outcome. The fourteen ears of corn that I had designated for use in this experiment yielded five cups of the sweetest, best-tasting polenta that I've ever had. No kidding. It was terrific! I'm already planning this summer's corn crop, and it's going to be bigger than last year's. Just don't tell the Feds about it, okay.

So here's how it went down. When the corn was ready last July I peeled back the husks to expose the ears, then tied the ears together with string and hung them from a curtain rod in the dining room so that they could dry out.

Around November I decided that I had had enough of the waiting game and so I cut the ears down and got to work.

I suppose there are tools that one could use to extricate the kernels but I was in an impatient mood and so I just used my fingers. For the most part simply rubbing the kernels with some force did the trick.

Like so.

In small batches I then started working the kernels in the Vitamix. This is not the best tool for milling polenta, as it's powerful and can turn the kernels to powder pretty quickly if you're not careful. But I was careful, pulsing as slowly as I could get away with.

And in the end I had this pretty nice mountain of gold.

The consistency wasn't terribly uniform, but I've got time to come up with another method for this coming summer's crop.

The most important thing was the taste. I've had a lot of polenta in my life, plenty of it very good quality and from all over the world. This stuff was the best. Because it tasted like sweet corn. Everybody who tried it agreed. And everybody wanted more.

Which is reason enough to seriously up production this summer.

I can't wait.