Monday, May 30, 2011

Strozzapreti-Gemelli with Tomato, Shallot and Mint

I have been meaning to make strozzapreti for a while, and since my flight got in relatively early in the day, I figured I'd have plenty of time before dinner to take a shot at them. Strozzapreti are a fresh pasta cut into strips and twisted into an open spiral. The long strozzapreti are usually served with a ragu containing meat, but we didn't have anything appropriate to make that kind of sauce. If you continue twisting the strozzapreti, they double over and become a kind of gemelli, with a dense texture and significant internal capacity suitable for a simple vegetable sauce, so that's what I made. The pasta is simple and conventional, one egg and enough flour to make an elastic pasta that isn't too wet, just under a cup. If the pasta is too wet the noodle collapses when twisted and just becomes a thick, solid lump. The noodle needs to maintain an internal hollow to allow the sauce to penetrate. I used unbleached white flour for this batch, but would prefer stronger flour like bread flour because the higher gluten content makes a more elastic dough. We didn't have any bread flour, and a couple of the noodles did have little breaks in them. Sue me.

I let the dough rest under plastic for about a half hour to hydrate and form gluten before I worked it in the machine. I've found that running the pasta through the machine several times on each thickness setting, folding it double between turns, makes for a stronger, more elastic dough. Elastic is the word for today. I finished the roll-out on setting number 5, which is one shy of the thinnest setting on my machine, and what I would use for any wide-cut noodle.

If there's a quick technique for making these strozzapreti-gemelli I couldn't figure it out intuitively. This noodle isn't traditional in Piedmonte where my family originates, so even if I had a surviving grandmother I don't think I could have learned it from her. I just rubbed them between my palms to get the twist started and then on the board to tighten them into gemelli. I don't know if it's important to let the pasta dry to set the shape, but rather than risk having them unravel in the boiling water I let these dry out until the surface was firm. Most fresh pasta is cooked in a flash, but these are more substantial and require a little more time, four or five minutes in the water, and another minute or two in the sauce.

For the sauce I made a fine dice of a small shallot (we were out of onions) and a couple cloves of garlic and sweated them in about two tablespoons of butter, fortified with a glug of olive oil. Once they were soft, I added some capers and a couple of pickled Thai birds-eye chilies from last summer's crop. The alley garden has totally saved my bacon (pasta) a hundred times since we started it. In addition to the mint, which is making an appearance daily, that one little Thai chili plant produced a bucket of little red firecrackers last year. We dried a bunch and I still have a pint or so that JSP pickled. I added the just-boiled noodles and a ladle of the boiling water, and once the sauce tightened almost to serving consistency, I crushed a couple of canned tomatoes into the skillet and tossed the pasta to combine. On the plate I added some chopped mint, drizzled some olive oil and decorated with chopped almonds and coarse grated parmigiano.

The name strozzapreti literally means "priest choker" or "strangles priests." It is thought to make reference to the priests who charged rent to farm on church-owned land. When the priest came to collect the rent, he would expect a meal, and if the meal happened to choke him to death, so much the better. The curious position the church holds in Italy is a marvel, simultaneously adored and reviled, it has historically been both the moral authority and an example of contemptible corruption. Mama would love her son to become a priest, but fantasized about strangling a priest with her pasta.

I was happy with the pasta, though it choked nobody to death, but I need to get some strong flour before making them again. Also, I need to have somebody show me how to make the noodles faster. (vg)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Skirt Steak Spring Roll with V8 Rice, Portobello, Fennel and Mint

I use spring roll wrappers an awful lot. They are a pretty good way to make what would otherwise be an awkward mess of loose parts into a manageable dish. For this effort, I started by soaking some short rice in V8 juice for about an hour. I bloomed some saffron in a glass of white wine in the cooking pot and let it boil off some of its alcohol, then added the rice and V8, a bay leaf, some salt, pepper, and about half-again as much water to keep it loose. Pre-soaked rice expands considerably so you need to just cover the rice with the cooking liquid. The pre-soaked rice cooks in about 8 minutes instead of 20, which is about all the time needed to prepare the rest of the dish. Rice prepared in this way has a ton of flavor without being greasy or pasty. The combination of V8 and saffron is tart with mineral undertones and goes well with a rich savory companion.

Earlier I cut the skirt steak into square portions and rubbed them with salt, pepper and mashed garlic to marinate while the rice cooked. After they had rested for a few minutes I seared the steak chunks and moved them to a platter to rest. I added another lug of olive oil to the skillet, sliced an onion, a portobello mushroom cap and half a fennel bulb into strips and threw them in the skillet to soften. I splashed a little tamari soy sauce on everything, and that plus the liquid rendered from the vegetables was enough to deglaze the pan of the meat and garlic fond.

I don't know if they're properly called portobello, portabello or portobella mushrooms, but you know what I'm talking about. Big as a saucer, open textured, frilly gilled toothy things. They soak up flavors real well and don't get quite as gummy as smaller mushrooms. I used to detest mushrooms because of the rotting smell that we have probably evolved an instinctive revulsion to, but am now able to get past this insult and have come to like them, even really gnarly ones in moderation. They are products of decomposition, born of rotting shit, but they have their uses.

I don't know what the deal is with these Banh Trang rice paper wrappers, but lately about half of them have little holes or fractures in them and they tend to rupture when any pressure is applied in rolling. There's only one brand of them at Andy's, so I don't know if they got a rotten batch or maybe they're just the crap brand and I need to find another kind somewhere. I rehydrate them in warm water, maybe that's the problem. Next time I'll try cold water as an experiment.

I assembled the rolls by laying some fennel frond and mint leaves as a base, then loading the rice on top, finishing with a couple of strips of the skirt steak and some of the vegetables before rolling. They were tasty enough that no dipping sauce was necessary, and the colors looked cool through the translucent wrapper, but the contents were a little loose and probably would have worked better wrapped in something more substantial like lavash bread. Tortillas would probably be too heavy. There's a soybean sheet called yuba that might have worked. It's thin but tougher than the rice paper so I could cinch the rolls up tighter without risking rupture. I'm not into rupture.*

*that's what she said

Friday, May 20, 2011

Team Pork Update

Since I still had some bacon and a couple of sausages left I gave it another whack. It's exactly the same with these exceptions:

  1. Cut the bacon planks a little bigger
  2. Par-cooked the bratwurst by poaching before browning (still used my pioneering ends-first method)
  3. Stole some half-and-half from the client fridge to mix with the egg yolks to coat the farfalle
Results: Much improved. A little shocked how big a difference the small changes made, especially how one ingredient can be so pivotal. Also, successfully used up all the bacon and sausage.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Farfalle with Sausage and Bacon

I'm leaving town at the end of the week, and we still have some of the Paulina Market bounty to get through before I go, specifically four fresh bratwurst and a hunk of their house-smoked bacon, which I thought would compliment and contrast with each other in a nice way. I cut a couple 1/2-inch thick planks of bacon and divided them into pieces about the size of a matchbox*. That's a ridiculous size for regular lardons, but pork belly served on its own is served in bigger pieces without complaint, and I thought bigger pieces would play better with the nuggets of sausage being closer in size. The idea wasn't to serve sausage with some bacon as a garnish, but to serve sausage and bacon pieces as a team. Team Pork.

I put the bacon hunks in a cold skillet with a little olive oil and started the fire. When cooking a flat cut of pork like a pork chop or loin medallion I prefer to start with a cold pan and bring the whole piece up to temperature rather than sear the outside in a hot skillet, which tends to make the meat pucker and deform, curling or cupping away from the pan and not browning well. Since this bacon was cut even thicker than some cutlets, it seemed like I ought to treat it with similar respect. The pieces didn't curl and browned nicely, but they shrank more than I expected and made me wish I'd cut them even bigger.

Ideally I'd prefer to poach or otherwise par-cook the sausage to make it firm, then slice it into morsels, then brown them along with the bacon. Unfortunately there wasn't time, as Heather was already hungry. With Italian sausage, chorizo or any other coarse sausage, I'd just peel it out of the casing and cook it either loose or as free-form lumps, but bratwurst is ground too fine for that, almost as fine as English sausage. I cut each sausage raw into four morsels and browned them in the rendered fat and olive oil. I stood them on end in the skillet, turning over once, stabilizing the shape by cauterizing the open grain so the meat wouldn't scatter. By cooking them this way I hoped that when the skin tightened with further cooking it wouldn't squeeze the pieces into hourglass or bobbin shapes and make them ridiculous. It worked and I'm pretty proud of that idea, but on the whole I'd still rather have poached them first.

Both team members were browned nicely, so I added a sliced sweet onion and four cloves of garlic, sliced, and tossed them together. When some of the onion had caramelized a little and all of it was wilted, I added a pretty good amount of white wine. I used the wine not just to make a liquor for the sauce, but to braise everything enough to marry the flavors and make the bacon pleasant to eat, not gnarly hard chips of bark.

I needed a base for the meat, and we had a box of farfalle, so that settled it. While it was boiling, I thought I might coat it with something so the cooking liquor of the meat wasn't the only sauce element, and that's where it got a little weird. I sometimes use a milk-and-egg mixture to coat pasta, but we didn't have any milk. What we did have was coconut milk. Or rather a coconut-based milk substitute, Turtle Mountain So Delicious Coconut Milk.

I'm going to digress here and explain about the coconut milk. In 2003, I went to San Juan Puerto Rico with a bunch of dudes from the studio to see the Montreal Expos play the Cubs during the final series of their freakish split-home-game season. I absolutely loved Hiram Bithorn stadium. The atmosphere was totally different from any mainland ballpark, jovial, informal and open, and access to the players was great. While standing in line to collect our will-call tickets, the pitching staff of the Cubs had to push through the same entrance as everybody else, and nobody batted an eye. The Expos set up some cabanas on the field before the third game, and we were allowed to meet and get autographs from the Expos and run around in the outfield. While I wasn't impressed with much of the food in San Juan proper, there was a stadium treat that has haunted me, coco-piña. Coco-piña as served at the ballpark is a cup of shaved ice flavored with coconut and pineapple juice, and it is absolutely delicious. It is sold out of paint buckets by vendors who scale the bleachers shouting "coco-piña!" for the duration of the game. When I was there, a pint cost a buck, and for another buck the dude would tip a glug of rum in your cup, making a bootleg piña colada. I didn't try that, but the sense memory of coco-piña has stuck with me and every now and again I try to recreate it here in Chicago. I have failed completely. In the effort I have tried coconut water, (which I have come to adore for its own merits), canned coconut milk, coconut cream, dried coconut flakes and most recently, this shit, Turtle Mountain So Delicious Coconut Milk.

I have gotten used to failing with the coco-piña thing. Totally fine with it. Every time I try something in the quest I think, "that was okay. It's no coco-piña, but it's okay." Every experiment has been palatable in its own way, until I tried Turtle Mountain So Delicious Coconut Milk. The geniuses at Turtle Mountain took a perfectly good thing, coconut milk, and added some kind of stabilizer or gelling agent to it to give it a more homogenized look and heavier body. When I poured it into some pineapple juice, it coagulated into little tapioca-like jizz lumps like the novelty "caviars" molecular chefs are so taken with. I tried slurping some of the coagulated drink, but it tasted like not much and felt absolutely repulsive in my mouth. So that's where that came from.

Why I didn't just throw it out I have no idea, but there it was in the fridge, taunting me while I'm under time pressure to knock out a dinner. In a moment of dumb-ass (weakness doesn't deserve the insult) I gave it a shot. I beat three egg yolks into a couple of tablespoons of this shit, seasoned it with some white pepper and salt, and when the pasta was ready, I coated it with the So Delicious and egg yolk. The sauce thickened nicely, no coagulating, no blobs, no caviar, seemed fine. I tasted the sauce and it didn't really taste of anything, but it wasn't bad, and it certainly let me avoid the dry pasta gluing together under the meat, which was my biggest concern.

While the pasta was boiling, I dunked a couple of plum tomatoes in the water, peeled and quartered them and added them to the skillet. I let everything braise and reduce, and when the meat was was tender I plated the pasta, grated some parmigiano over it, and spooned the sausage and bacon on top. I drizzled it with olive oil, seasoned it with some coarse sea salt and sprinkled some chopped chives on everything. It looked pretty good. Heather liked it but said the pasta could have used more flavor, and when I mentioned the coconut milk she said it was like a negative ingredient and it took away flavor. Like a Flavor Elf that robbed Team Pork. Little coconut asshole. Back to your elf hole. I'm pouring that shit out before I leave town.

*People used to smoke tobacco, and they carried matches to light their pipes, cigars and cigarettes. A "Matchbox" is a small wooden or pasteboard box, approximately one-and-a-half inches long, an inch wide and half-inch deep,  that held a convenient number of matches. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Polenta With Coarse Ragu

I love polenta. I'm not crazy about the way corn subsidy and industrial over-production have destroyed the rest of US agriculture, or the way corn in the form of processed ingredients and animal feed has come to dominate the food chain here, but fuck it, polenta is terrific. It has a lovely texture in your mouth and a welcome flavor that is discernible even against stiff competition, and it makes a nice vehicle for basically any kind of condiment. I've served it with cooked bitter greens, meats, ragu, under grilled vegetables with a drizzle of balsamic, even under fruit or sweet cheese with chopped nuts, honey or maple syrup. If you let it set and firm up, you can cut it into pallets and toast it, brown it in butter or under the broiler or even bread it and fry it. You can make little pockets in slabs of it and stuff them with jam or cheese. You can layer it with ragu, bechamel and cheese and bake it in a casserole. It's basically another kind of bread, and it can be used in as many ways as bread. I used to make polenta with stock pretty often, but lately I seem to prefer the simpler flavor of polenta cooked in plain unsalted water. It's basically perfect the way it is.

I have tried making polenta out of Mexican Masa, and it works fine, but I have come to prefer plain yellow corn meal. I don't know if there's any real difference, but I get the feeling there's more flavor in the yellow corn meal, and the masa seemed grainy when served loose and hot. I love tamales, and I intend to run a similar experiment with them, but it'll probably come out like you'd expect, with masa being better for tamales and yellow corn meal being better for polenta. I tried making polenta from fresh corn in the food processor once and it came out awful, gummy and gluey. I don't mind white hominy grits for breakfast, where meat and eggs provide flavor and body, but grits don't hold their own next to a ragu or other savory companion the way yellow corn does.

Enough already. We get it, you're a goddamn polenta wizard. Boil water and make polenta, what, you want a cookie?

I like to serve polenta with coarse ragu, not a smooth puree or wet sauce. The contrast in texture between the soft polenta and the chunks in the ragu is a big part of its appeal. I've used bacon, ham and steak occasionally, but sausage is my regular choice for meat, though you could make a fine ragu with just vegetables. I get a lot of meat from Paulina Market, and they usually have "torpedos" of sweet Italian sausage that I like a lot. They are about a half pound of fennel sausage formed into ovals. Not having a casing, they are easy to use and one torpedo is the perfect size to make precisely enough ragu for Heather and me. I started the Ragu by pulling lumps of the sausage off the torpedo for browning in a skillet with some olive oil. Once the sausage had a nice color, I added half a sliced onion. Once the onion was tender, I added a couple of fresh plum tomatoes and an apple, all cut into half-inch cubes. I like the flavor of grilled or seared fresh tomatoes, even the hothouse tomatoes we have in the winter, but if used alone they tend to leave the ragu a little dry, so after the tomatoes and apple had caramelized a fair bit, I added a couple of canned San Marzano tomatoes, breaking them open as I did. Once all those ingredients had gotten to know each other. I added three big garlic cloves, sliced, a hunk of ginger, a jalapeno and a serrano pepper, all diced. As an aside, what the fuck happened to jalapenos? They are hardly peppery at all any more. Maybe it's my fault for using them out of season, but it seems like forever since I've had a jalapeno that had any heat to it at all. That's why I'm also using serranos lately. They don't taste like much of anything, but they have a little kick. When all the aromatics had sweated a little, I added a couple glugs of white wine and let the ragu simmer and mellow a little.

I plated the polenta and floated the ragu on top, drizzled it with olive oil and decorated it with some shaved parmigiano and chopped cilantro and mint. Alley news: The mint is coming in like gangbusters in the JSP Memorial alley plot this year, already a shrub the size of a bushel basket. I like polenta soft enough to "catch" or slightly envelop the pieces of the ragu, but not so soft that it's runny and hard to eat with a fork, and this batch came out pretty good. It's easy to add too much dry cornmeal to the water because it takes a couple of minutes to bloom and let you know what its finished consistency will be. It will look impossibly liquid at first when you have it right, but it stabilizes and thickens over the course of about five minutes, and the consistency improves over time, so don't fear letting the polenta sit there going blop blop for as long as it takes to prepare the rest of the meal. You could let it go for an hour if it's wet enough and no harm would come.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Skirt Steak with Jasmine Rice, also Apple Onion Wine Chutney

Skirt steak is one of my favorite cuts, It's a working muscle from inside the body cavity, so it gets a lot of use and develops a strong flavor. It has an open grain and takes marinades and rubs well, and it's thin enough to be cooked simply by searing and resting with no extra steps. It's perfect for the kind of cooking I do for Heather, where I need to make something quickly that's still satisfying. A lot of my food is made under time constraints, so I do whatever I can to make it easy to make delicious food quickly. One terrific time saver is pre-soaking rice, so the kernels are swollen and cook in only a few minutes. The soaking time doesn't seem to matter, anything from an hour to eight hours seems to work equally well, so when I think I'm going to be cooking rice later, I'll throw some in a bowl to start soaking. I have experimented with using green tea and V8 juice as the soaking liquid with interesting results, and at some point I want to try making a quart of fresh mixed vegetable juices and soaking the rice in that, but most of the time I just use water. I was using jasmine rice for this pilaf, which has a subtle floral aroma that could easily be overwhelmed, so water was probably best anyway.

I started the rice by sweating some onions and apples in the pot with olive oil. David Yow once called the combination of apples and onions "magical" in rice, and I concur. I know there's a big difference between different apples, but honestly when I want to put apple in something I just use whatever we have, and in this case we had a big crisp Jona Gold apple, so that's what I used. I drained the rice and added it to the pot along with some dry Chinese mustard seeds, vegetable stock and saffron. I only use additional aromatics or seasoning with Jasmine rice when it's going to be served under something with a really strong flavor, and I love the way mustard seeds hide in rice and occasionally rupture between your teeth for extra zotz. With fish or vegetables I think the scent of Jasmine is enough, and it's best served simply.

The apple was giant, and I only needed about a third of it for the rice, so I decided to make an apple chutney instead of a simple pan sauce to serve with the steak. Chutneys typically take a long time to mature, but I've found that using wine instead of vinegar means that with any decently sweet fruit you need much less time for the flavors to mellow, and basically as soon as the fruit is cooked it's ready to eat. It's not a real chutney, but I don't know what else to call it.

This steak was simply seared in olive oil with a rub of salt, black pepper and little bitter cocoa powder. For the last couple of minutes in the pan, I buried the steak in sliced onions and diced apples both to add some aroma to the steak and get them started cooking for the condiment. I removed the steak to a plate to rest and added another lug of olive oil to the skillet, along with diced jalapeno and serrano peppers. When they had all softened and gotten to know each other, I added considerable red wine, a stick of Mexican (canella) cinnamon, some cardamom, coriander seeds and diced ginger. As an aside, I prefer Mexican cinnamon to Indonesian (cassia) cinnamon for savory dishes. Cassia is used for most packaged ground cinnamon, and I associate it with generic apple desserts, so I tend to avoid it. The sauce reduced on a full boil until the rice was ready to plate, maybe another five minutes. I tasted it and the apples and onions themselves had the perfect chutney quality of being sweet and astringent in proportion, but the mediating wine reduction was a little too bitter, so I drizzled in a little honey and tossed it until it was evenly incorporated.

Part of my struggle with wine cooking is that I know basically nothing about wine. I don't drink as a rule, though I have had wine served to me in Italy and enjoyed it and I have been contemplating forcing the issue for health reasons. Unsurprisingly I have no perspective on which wines to use in cooking for which foods, other than the cliche that reds are hearty and go with meat and whites are less assertive and go with fruit and fish. I end up using whatever we have in the building, which can be anything from a beautiful Italian wine given as a gift to a bottle of celebrity-label plonk bought as a joke. No shit, I have used Don Cooper's "Coopernet" and Enie Banks version of the same, though mercifully the Dave Matthews Band wine was drunk by the poker crowd and I didn't need to suffer it in the kitchen. Capsule review: "A little jammy, hits too many notes, doesn't finish quickly." The chutney in question used a $12 bottle of Syrah I bought because the guy standing next to me recommended it. Unless and until I develop a wine palette, I'm going to rely on strangers and until one of them recommends a magnum of Ditka, I'll assume they aren't fucking with me.

Anyway, I sliced the steak into pieces across the grain and plated it on top of the rice, mixed the meat juices into the chutney and spooned it along side the rice. I know chutneys are supposed to be served at room temperature, but fuck me I'm not going to spray it with liquid nitrogen. We'll call it a warm chutney then, shall we? I sprinkled some chopped parsley and tarragon over everything, and with a scattering of sea salt, I'll admit to being pleased with the way the plate looked. Heather ate it with no complaints.

I still think about drinking wine.

My First Dolma

Bought a jar of grape leaves at Andy's Fruit Ranch on a whim, thinking how tough can it be? Dolma are basically little rice leaf burritos, right? I can do that.

Andy's usually has a bunch of great weird vegetables, but things were pretty dry this trip. They had some cool looking little avocados and some fennel, and I remember reading a thing about female fennel plants having more flavor, and decided I was going to find me a female fennel. You identify the female plant by the shape of the bulb, round and voluptuous is female, longer and more cylindrical is male. I poked through all their fennel and finally found one with a big can on it. I named her Latifa and brought her home.

Classic dolma are stuffed with par-boiled dill rice and finished in stock, but I wanted to bang these out in a hurry, so they could be eaten right away. I sweated some chopped apples and onions, then added the rice and water along with a bay leaf. While the rice was cooking I prepared the other stuff for the middle of the dolma. I sliced the fennel into thin crescents and cut the flesh of the avocado into slices. The little avocado was really cool. The flesh was a uniform ochre color, the seed was small and hard, and the skin was almost like a piece of tupperware. I just had to flex the halved avocado a little and all the flesh popped out in a single kernel.

When the rice was done, chopped a couple of scallions and a mess of mint and stirred it into the rice and made the dolma. Turns out it's totally easy. The grape leaves have a little stem, which may be edible, I don't know, but it definitely interferes with rolling, so I nipped it off. I made each package with a slice of avocado, a couple slices of fennel and a blop of rice, just rolled up like a burrito.

I made a dipping sauce because fuck it, why not. Grated some ginger, chopped some garlic, stirred it into some mustard, tamari soy, siracha and sesame oil. Boom, great sauce. I know it isn't culturally correct, but it's tasty as hell. Chuck got me a ceramic ginger grater a few years ago, and I feel like an idiot not using it until recently. Regular graters, even microplanes, gag on the fibers of ginger. The little ceramic guy is fantastic, makes a great puree of the ginger and leaves the fibers still attached to the root. Super great tool.

Some of the leaves have tough fibers, but you can't tell by looking, you just need to fish them out of your mouth. Otherwise, Dolma are really easy. (v)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Orzo with Egg Yolk and Tomato

For Heather's birthday we went to New York for a week and hung out with a bunch of the best people. One of the highlights of the trip was a four-hour tasting menu lunch at Del Posto, the imposing and beautiful food palace opened by Mario Batali, Lidia & Joseph Bastianich and Mark Ladner. The actual highlight of the trip was the remote-controlled mechanical animated chimpanzee bust we found at Goodwill and bought for Kennan, but the meal was a close second.

As a completely random confluence between my professional life as a recording engineer and my passion for food, I know the pastry chef at Del Posto, Brooks Headley. He was the drummer for several bands before he got too busy as a chef, and I have been lucky enough both to record him and remain in touch with him over the years as he progressed into a star chef with an adventurous and tasteful approach to food. Part of the tasting menu was a little plate of gnocchi dressed with nothing more than some crushed tomatoes from the slopes of mt Vesuvius. No salt, no pepper, no cheese, no herbs, nothing. The tomatoes were fantastic, bright, astringent, with substantial body and complex, juicy texture. They had undertastes of wine and dirt and smoke and holy shit they were amazing. This dish was a real revelation, because I have a tendency to putter around with sauces, and I realized I was probably doing more than necessary.

For the first meal back in Chicago I wanted to make something with a similar simple tomato dressing, but we didn't have anything to make gnocchi out of, no potatoes, no pumpkin, no semolina, nothing. I decided to substitute a plate of orzo, the little lozenge-shaped small pasta. I've had very good luck using orzo both in soups and alone as a complimentary dish in the manner of a pilaf or risotto. The orzo absorbs flavors from cooking liquid, so it can be made more savory than a long pasta, which allows it to substitute for the gnocchi, which naturally have some flavor of their own.

I cooked the orzo in a light broth made of vegetable soup base, saffron, a little Thai fish sauce and a teaspoon of Marmite. The fish sauce and saffron add complexity and fragrance to the broth, and the Marmite has a nice bitter richness. I particularly like how the slightly metallic saffron flavor infuses into the starchy pasta and keeps it from seeming pasty or dull. For vegetable stock I really like powdered Vegeta, found in Eastern European markets. It is made from just dehydrated vegetables and herbs, so it doesn't have the weird, nasal overdone taste of most prepared soup bases, and it's actually very close to the onion- and carrot-based vegetable stock I make myself when I have time.

Who am I kidding. I never have time. I haven't made vegetable stock in years. Vegeta is the shit.

While the orzo cooked, I tasted a piece of one of the San Marzano tomatoes I have been using for sauces, and while it was nice, it wasn't the tomato party in my mouth the Vesuvian tomatoes were. Whatever, that's the thing, just taste the tomato, it'll be fine.

I plated the orzo and nestled an egg yolk in the center. I love doing that, it makes me feel like it's a real thing, sort of like when a real cook shaves a truffle over something. It shouts "This is real food you're eating! Please like it!" Also, an egg yolk makes a bunch of little things (like a bunch of orzos or rices or spaghettis) team up into one big thing ready to fuck up your tongue with an egg yolk. I crushed a couple of the tomatoes and scattered them around the plate, grated some parmigiano and drizzled some olive oil on everything. So much for my stab at minimalism.

Listen, I tried. I honestly tried not to do anything to the tomatoes, I just couldn't stop myself. It was tasty. The orzo absorbed enough of the stock to have a nice flavor, the egg yolk added a nice richness that was offset by the tomato, and the olive oil and parmigiano were a pleasant seasoning. There was nothing wrong with it. I'm doomed to fall short of the ideal, so what. That's the human condition and I'm human. (vg without fish sauce)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Trottoli, An Unusual Pasta

I found an unfamiliar pasta at the Jewel called trottoli and bought a bag on a whim. It's a big spindle-shaped curlicue, and doesn't appear in Hidebrand and Kennedy's the Geometry of Pasta, my go-to resource for unfamiliar pasta, so I tried to figure it out on my own. Most big pastas are suited to baking al forno or serving in a big basin with heavy ragu or other substantial, chunky sauce, but this one is dfferent. It's big but doesn't have a large cavity, just a capacious spiral, so I thought it would go well with a rich but smooth sauce, which would get trapped in its crevice. Each noodle is big enough to be stabbed individually with a fork, so I imagined that each of them could carry enough sauce to be a balanced bite of texture and flavor.

I boiled the pasta and made a sauce by sweating finely chopped celery, onion and garlic in butter, then adding some white wine and the packing liquid (tomato juice) from a can of San Marzano tomatoes. I reduced it all down to a fairly dense paste, then added the pasta and a little of the pasta water. Cooking the pasta in the sauce for the last couple of minutes, tossing frequently, I was able to get the sauce to fill the crevices of the noodle just as I had hoped.

I plated the trottoli with a little chopped tarragon and mint, then grated some parmigiano and scattered some finely chopped almonds and finished with a little olive oil and sea salt. Trottoli are a really cool pasta and I'm pretty sure I'll use them more. They're big enough to entertain your mouth individually* and when you bite into them the sauce trapped inside gushes onto your tongue and seems to amplify the flavors in the sauce. Because each trottolo (?) is so substantial chopped nuts and crunchy sea salt work well by adhering to the outside in contrast with the vegetal sauce trapped in the noodle itself.

I think I'm going to try trottoli with a cheese sauce or some kind of veloute-based sauce next. I just need to figure out a flavor profile that suits this sort of delivery. (vg)

That's what she said.