Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Just don't call it Bolognese



There isn't a tomato in sight here. Those reddish/orangeish spots you see? Carrots. Not tomatoes. Like I said.

Aside from that single omission, what we have here is your basic (and very tasty) Bolognese sauce, or, more properly, ragu.

Except that this isn't a Bolognese ragu at all. Because a Bolognese must include at least a little bit of tomato. You can call it a Bolognese if it doesn't have tomato, as many people do. But you—and they—would be wrong to do so.

You want a true Bolognese? Then click right here and I'll show you one. Otherwise bear with me while we prepare what most people call a "White Bolognese." Most people, that is, except for the ones in Bologna, Italy, home to the classic ragu. And me, of course.



This is pretty simple stuff. Two large carrots, three celery stalks, a medium-size onion and around 1/4 pound of pancetta, all diced pretty fine.



In a dutch oven slowly brown the pancetta in olive oil at a low heat.



When the pancetta has lightly browned (not too crispy) add the vegetables and 1/2 cup of dry white wine or vermouth and cook at medium to high heat until the wine has evaporated.



Here I've finely diced 1 pound of beef (boneless short rib here) and around 1/4 pound of pork (boneless rib). Feel free to use just a pound of beef (even ground), as I was just playing around by adding a little pork. Hell, I'd planned on throwing in a couple chicken livers but forgot that I'd bought them and so they stayed in the fridge. Dammit!



Once the wine evaporates add the meat and allow it to brown lightly.



The add around two cups of homemade stock (I used chicken stock, but only because I didn't have any beef stock left in the freezer).



As the sauce is simmering (at medium-low heat) keep a small pot filled with a quart of whole milk on extremely low heat. Every 15 minutes or so stir in a little milk until it's used up. In around two hours the sauce will be done.



Even though I wasn't making a Bolognese I thought it'd be nice to use one of the brass pasta cutters we picked up in Bologna last year. But you go ahead and use any pasta you like.



This is a shot of the unadulterated end result, but I highly recommend topping the pasta with some Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Oh, and if you're not in a hurry, prepare the sauce a day in advance, not the day you want to eat it. This is definitely the kind of thing that improves overnight.

No matter what you call it.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Chestnut Carbonara



I'm the last guy to mess with tradition. Ask anybody who has eaten in my home when I am working the line and all will tell you the same thing: The guy leans heavily towards perfecting the classics, not merely approximating or (gasp!) reinventing them.

Take Spaghetti alla Carbonara. It took me years to get this seemingly simple Roman classic right—a lot of them. When I did finally manage it ("The Best Spaghetti Carbonara") I never looked back.

Until last night, that is. For reasons that cannot be explained I spent the entire day pondering how the addition of chestnuts—yes, chestnuts—might impact a classic carbonara.

Scratch that, actually. I spent the entire day convinced that the addition of chestnuts would make an absolutely terrific addition to this classic. So what if a Web search around midday discovered virtually no evidence that anybody else in the culinary universe had come to the same conclusion.

Whaddyagonnado?



So, this is around one-third pound of my homemade pancetta. It's what I begin every carbonara with. You can use pancetta, or guanciale, or even thick-cut bacon.



Chop the meat into small, thick chunks, like so. (Of course, this is also a good time to get your pasta water going, as this won't take very much time at all.)



This is around a quarter pound of cooked-and-peeled chestnuts, which should also be chopped, like so.



This is three large eggs, one egg yolk, and 1/2 cup of grated and mixed Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses.



Mix the egg and cheese together and then add a good dose of freshly grated black pepper.



In a large skillet cook the pancetta in olive oil, slowly and at a low flame, until lightly browned. Stir in the chestnuts and saute for another minute, then turn off the heat and wait for three minutes before proceeding further.



After the pan with the pancetta and chestnuts has cooled for three minutes add the egg and cheese mixture and let it stand until your pasta is cooked.



When your pasta is al dente add it to the pan and quickly incorporate. The hot pasta and slightly warmed egg and cheese mixure should provide ample heat to cook the egg to proper carbonara consistency. If not, and the egg remains very wet, carefully apply just a little flame to finish things off—but be very careful, as too much heat will scramble the eggs.



All that's left to do now is plate the pasta (I used bucatini here, which works well with carbonara), grate some cheese over it, and serve.

I was right about this being a swell idea, by the way. But take the recipe out for a spin and let me know what you think.

Chestnut Carbonara
Recipe

1/3 pound pancetta, diced into cubes
1/4 pound cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 large eggs, plus one egg yolk
1/2 cup freshly grated mix of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. pasta (spaghetti is traditional but here I used bucatini)


Heat the oil in a large pan over low heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until lightly browned, then stir in the chestnuts and sauté another minute. Turn off the heat and let cool for 3 minutes.
Mix 3 large eggs and one egg yolk in a bowl with the grated cheese and a generous dose of black pepper. Pour the mixture into the warm pan and stir.
When the pasta is al dente add it to the pan and stir vigorously until thoroughly coated. Plate, top with grated cheese and serve.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Last Exit to Queens



Sometimes it isn't all about the food, you know.

Take this pile of lightly fried calamari and shrimp that's been generously doused in a medium-hot red sauce. It's my and my brother Joe's go-to order when we're craving down-and-dirty Italian on those occasions when I visit him for a few days. The dish's origin is a not in the least memorable restaurant called Vincent's in Queens, New York, hard by JFK International Airport in an area known as Howard Beach.

Joe and I have enjoyed Vincent's calamari and shrimp together countless times through the years. Largely we do this when it's just the two of us on hand. We may stop by the restaurant after a day at the racetrack, or order takeout for watching a ballgame on TV. It's one of our little rituals. You know, the kind that bonds you to another, no matter the time or circumstance. 

Last week marked the last time my brother and I would share this particular intimacy, though. I'm saddened by this; so is he, I'd imagine.

But it was time.

You see, just up the road and to the north of Howard Beach and Vincent's is a place called Ozone Park. It's the neighborhood where Joe has been living for around three decades. He moved there from our childhood home in Brooklyn after his two older brothers had gone off on their own, only Joe took our aging mother along with him so as not to leave her unattended. This is not how young men are supposed to build a life for themselves; nonetheless, Joe shouldered mom's dependence on him admirably, if against his own interests, until the day that she died.

He's a good man, my brother. Honor and loyalty flow through him freely—and he's got the devotion of many good people around him to prove it.

Joe finally left his old life in Ozone Park last week, determined to start a new and better life elsewhere, one that is unencumbered by the past. I went down to New York and spent several days helping him with the move. The night before the movers came the subject of where we would be eating came up.

"Vincent's?" said my brother, more a statement than a question.

We'd decided this last time would be a takeout run and so I waited in the car while Joe went inside. I could see that "The Fat Man" was at his usual place behind the cash register next to the door, and that he greeted my brother enthusiastically, which often is not at all the case. 

"Did you say goodbye to him?" I asked when Joe returned with our food.

"Nah," said my brother. "Fat Man was in such a good mood tonight I figured why ruin it for him."

If I'd had any doubt about Joe's commitment to boldly turning a well-worn page in his life it was dispelled when he opened his takeout container.

"The hell is that?" I grunted, opening the last beer from an almost-empty refrigerator. "They give you the wrong order?"

Joe's container held not our usual shrimp and calamari, as mine, but rather cheese ravioli and meatballs.

"Nope, that's what I ordered," he said. "Time to move on."


Good luck, my brother. And much love.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chestnut & ricotta tortellini



I almost forgot about these. They're from the holidays, a time when good Italian chestnuts are available in abundance, even here in Maine.

It's a pretty simple equation, really. I see nice chestnuts, I buy nice chestnuts. I worry about how to use them later on.



And so one morning, as our holiday houseguests were still sleeping in their beds, I roasted a couple pounds of chestnuts (here's how) and got to thinking, naturally, about filled pasta.

Big surprise.



Crumble the chestnuts (this is a pound's worth shelled) by hand and saute in a stick of butter. After a few minutes pour into a food processor and run it until the chestnuts take on a granular quality.



You can see that this isn't completely smooth. That's the way I like it, as it gives the filling some texture, but if you prefer it smoother just process the chestnuts longer, possibly adding a bit of cream.



To complete the filling just mix in ricotta (1/2 pound would be the minimum, a full pound max), some grated nutmeg and a touch of lemon zest. If the filling is on the stiff side add cream or milk as needed, but that's really all there is to it.



The rest is Tortellini Making 101. Roll out your pasta sheet and spoon out the filling like so, leaving a good couple inches in between each dollop.



Cut the individual squares.



Fold diagonally in half.



And press down along the edges to seal. (If your dough is on the dry side you may need to brush the edges with egg wash before folding over.)



Then simply bring the two top edges together and press so that they join.



Cover a tray or work surface with course semolina and rest the tortellini on top until you're ready to cook them.



You can serve these a lot of different ways (brown butter comes to mind), but I went with a simple en brodo, which means that I boiled and served the tortellini in a fresh homemade chicken stock and then topped things off with parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Like I said, this all happened around a month ago now. But if memory serves no complaints were filed—and the houseguests have already scheduled their return.

Phew!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anna's rice pudding



Our story begins, as so many of them do, at a not-altogether chance encounter with a family member on the afternoon of Christmas Eve last.

"Open your mouth, Meatball, I made Anna's rice pudding," commanded Cousin Jennifer, pointing a half-filled spoon at my person and approaching from a distance of seven or so feet. "It's not any good but I want your opinion anyway. I've been waiting for you to show up."

I have never known Jennifer, daughter to Cousins John and Susie, to be the bossy type and so her aggression was unanticipated. Even Aunt Laura, her grandmother, whom we both were visiting on this holiday and whose diminished health leaves her senses somewhat compromised, looked surprised.

More shocking still is that Jennifer had "made" anything at all. So far as I am aware my cousin's stovetop is little more than overflow storage space in her small apartment-size kitchen. A story circulates that she once cleared off a burner in order to bring a bit of water to a boil, for tea I was told, but no evidence of this exists, and nobody believes the account anyway.

And yet, here we were, in Laura's living room, surrounded by other family, not to mention all the beautiful Christmas cookies and candies lined along a sideboard and available for all to enjoy.

Now, I love my cousin very much; let's be clear on this. Her spirit is generous, her heart full. Being spoon-fed by her hand, if only for a taste or two, was more an intimate familial moment than a culinary one, defined not by the quality of Jennifer's cooking but by her desire to share the experience with, of all the many fine people in her orbit, me.

"Well?" she said watching as the first bit of pudding made its way around the inside of my mouth. "It's terrible, right."

It was nothing of the kind and I said as much.

"Tastes like Anna's rice pudding, all right. You did good, Jen."

Just then a second spoonful arrived at my lips.

"But?" Jennifer challenged as I accepted a second taste of her experiment. "C'mon, just say it."

For someone with so little knowledge of things culinary my cousin proved to know more than I had credited her with. Her rice pudding might have tasted like Aunt Anna's but the texture... Well, it was all wrong—and she knew it.

"Okay, it's maybe just a little bit dense," I offered delicately. "But only a little, can hardly notice."

This was a yellow cream-colored lie, of course. On the density scale Jennifer's pudding was in the eighty percentile whereas our aunt's might sit more in the forty range. She simply had overcooked the pudding, that's all. At least in my view.

"For a first time out you did real good," I said encouragingly. "Maybe just cook it a little less next time, or at a lower flame. More importantly, don't give up. You can do this."



Arriving back home to Maine after the long holidays I received a text from Jennifer about an unrelated topic, which prompted me to scroll through past messages we had shared throughout the year. I stopped cold at this picture of her with Aunt Anna. They were in Anna's kitchen some months ago and had decided to say hello to me by sending this photo. "Wish you were here" was their message.

I am not readily moved to emotion and yet this simple, out-of-focus, poorly lighted, not in the least remarkable picture pretty much left me helpless. Certainly its message did. And so I went to my kitchen and did the one thing that I knew would bring the three of us together again: I called my aunt, got her recipe and made her rice pudding.

What else could I do?

Anna's Rice Pudding
Serves 4-6 people

1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup rice
Pinch of salt
8 ounces heavy cream
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins

Add the milk, rice and salt to a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; stir frequently so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom.

In a bowl beat the egg yolks and incorporate with half of the cream.

When the milk comes to a boil turn the heat to low and allow the rice to cook at a slow simmer for around 40 minutes or so, or until the rice has absorbed most of the milk. (Don't allow the milk to completely evaporate; this will stiffen the rice too much.)

Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and the rest of the cream (the cream that was NOT added to the egg yolks).

Add the egg yolks and cream and incorporate.

Cover the bottom of a serving tray with the raisins and pour the pudding over it.

Allow to cool, sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Escarole & polenta pie



It may not look like much but few foods are more comforting to me than this one. I've been eating polenta with escarole since I was a boy and no matter how many times I make it, it always tastes the same. Even when it isn't.

You know how that is.

Anyway, it's New Year's Eve and we've all got lots to do. I'll get right to it then.



As with so many good things, start out by sauteing lots of garlic, anchovy and a little hot pepper in plenty of good olive oil.



After a couple minutes toss in your escarole and cover so that it steams a bit. This is 3 bunches of escarole here, which have been cleaned and chopped.



Making polenta is an inexact science and so go with the way you're most comfortable. In terms of quantities for this dish, I used 1 1/3 cups of polenta and cooked it in around 7 cups of water.



Once the escarole has softened remove the lid, add some chopped kalamata olives and pine nuts, and saute another couple minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. (I've also had this with raisins instead of olives, which is more Sicilian style, and it's great too. And it works without the pine nuts too.)



Assembling is a piece of cake. Just put down a layer of the polenta in a baking dish that's been lightly coated with olive oil, so that the bottom of the pan is completely covered.



Then add the escarole, but make sure not to use very much of the liquid that's left in the pan it sauteed in. I just scoop out the escarole with a slotted spoon.



All that's left to do now is put down another layer of polenta, at which point cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F. After 30 minutes remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or so. The edges of the polenta should start to brown slightly. Think of it as if it's lasagne; that'll help figure out when it's done.



This was in the oven close to an hour. It's best not to cut into it immediately; let it rest at least a few minutes or more and then have at it.



I really do love this stuff.

Happy New Year everybody!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Almond cookies



If these specimens remind you of traditional pignoli (pine nut) cookies, there's a good reason: They are exactly the same cookies, just with almond slices outside instead of pine nuts.

There's also a reason that I bothered to do this, though how good a reason I'm not entirely certain. See, I get a lot of emails around the holidays asking about my pignoli cookie recipe. Some ask why I use a little flour (I think it improves the texture and makes the cookies easier to make); others bemoan the fact that they can't find almond paste in their part of the world. 

This year I've been approached by several people who've complained that pine nuts mess with their taste buds. The specific charge is that some pignolis leave a bitter or even metallic taste in their mouths. And not just for a few moments, but possibly as long as days. 

I poked around some and, sure enough, found that there is something called "pine nut syndrome." It's a mystery what this is exactly. But it's a real thing. Even the Food and Drug Administration is onto it, noting that for certain people eating pine nuts "decreases appetite and enjoyment of food."

We cannot have any of that around here, of course. Certainly not around the holidays. And so allow me to present a new holiday tradtion to the pine nut-afflicted among us: The pignoli-less pignoli cookies, made not with pine nuts but with almonds instead.

Hey, we're all about inclusion here.



First of all, the only kind of almond paste you can use is the kind that comes out of a can like this. I get a lot of emails asking if it's okay to use the paste that comes out of a tube or a box. It isn't okay. I realize that some people have trouble finding canned paste where they live, but it's what you need if you want to make these cookies.



Break up the paste and put it in a food processor with 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup confectioners sugar, and 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour (the complete ingredient list is below). Process until fine.



Here's what it'll look like, and getting to this point won't take very long at all, less than a minute I'd say. At this point add one egg white and process until a dough forms,



Again, this won't take long at all.



Here's the completed dough. It's not a lot, fits in the plam of my hand.



Empty 6 to 8 ounces of sliced raw almonds into a plate or bowl (or any work surface you prefer). Sliced almonds come in different forms; use whatever type you like.



Have a bowl of water on hand. Dip your fingers in the water, take a small piece of dough, then roll it in the almonds until completely covered. Don't bother being delicate with the dough, just work things until the almonds adhere.



Like so.



Line the cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the oven preheated to 300 degrees F. After 10 minutes rotate the sheet. After another 10 minutes check to see if the cookies have gotten golden brown. If they haven't rotate the tray again in 5-minute intervals until the cookies are done, at which point place them on a rack to cool.



This batch wound up taking just under 30 minutes, and they tasted totally swell.

The pignoli-less pignoli cookie tradition might actually have some legs.


Almond Cookies
Recipe
Makes around sixteen cookies

1 8-oz can almond paste (do NOT use the tubes; the texture is different)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 extra large egg white
6-8 oz raw sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F
In a food processor, crumble the almond paste, then add the sugars and flour and mix until fine
Add the egg white and mix until dough forms
Empty the almonds into a plate or bowl
Scoop out small amounts of the dough (wet hands help and so I keep a bowl filled with water on hand), then roll in the almonds until coated
Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 10 minutes
Rotate the sheet and bake another 10 minutes. If cookies are not golden rotate pan in 5-minute intervals until they are
Allow to cool on a rack, give a light dusting of confectioners sugar, and serve