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)


  1. "the" Steve Albini??! :-)

  2. Vegeta and Time Poverty is why I live in Jefferson Park - will try the fish sauce (Nam Pla, I'm assuming, right?) Marmite combo next time I have a bit of saffron... sounds delicious.

  3. When do I get an invite to dinner?

  4. maybe your tomatos weren't actually san marzano? there's a lot of tomatos labeled "san marzano" but the can doesn't bare the EU D.O.P label, which basically ensures that they're the real deal vesuvius grown guys. no Denominazione di Origine Protetta, no deal.

  5. Steve!. Scott Hedeen here in Atlanta. I'm trying to open a brewery here in GA (wish me luck!). To build "hype"... i've done limited beers for a bunch of bands. Limited as in, 2 cases and have asked for no money and recieved no money. Mainly as a PR tool to get the brewery out there. Bands are down.. and give full permission...Killdozer was the first... then Didjits... Die Kreuzen... Jesus Lizard... most recently Halo of Flies... Helios Creed and Mudhoney.

    That said... any interest in a Shellac beer? (Big Black would be cool too!)... BUT... mainly, Instead of that... I'd like you and I to collab on a beer/food dish. You tell me what beer style you would want... and you can use it as a pairing for one of yr pasta meals?... beer and food pairings are very common now... and are almost expected. I'd publish the recipe on FB and our website.

    as for me?. i'm 45. Saw Big Black in NYC in 86 (?) cat club?. Rapeman at DC Space in 89... and well... never saw Shellac. So i know the bands.

    Scott Hedeen.
    Burnt Hickory Brewery.

  6. steve albini wont you do some sound engineering for my band? all of our songs are about egg yolk and orzo

  7. Good call on the use of marmite as an ingredient. It's something I always forget to use, but when I do remember it adds another layer of taste (if that makes sense)

  8. Thank you for concluding an argument I had with a friend in my favour: Americans have heard of marmite!
    It's great in small amounts as a gravy enhancer.

  9. I think that this single dish, since reading about it, has, in some form or fashion, inspired all my cooking endeavors since. Thank you, Mr. Albini.

  10. At least you restrained yourself from using apples...


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