Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Used to Make Gnocchi All the Time

I used to make gnocchi all the time. Like twice a week. I don't know why, but I fell out of the habit. Feeling a twinge of nostalgia, when H-bomb needed dinner and we had nothing prepared, I made a batch. Gnocchi are an under-appreciated pasta, probably because when they're made badly they're heavy and tough

I've been adding apples to things recently, mostly because I'll see an apple sitting there while I'm making something and think, whatever, maybe that would be good with apple. When I decided to make gnocchi, I noticed an apple sitting there, and nature took its course.

Conventionally, potato gnocchi are made from cold cooked potato, flour and eggs. This requires the foresight to have cooked and cooled a potato in advance, something I do not have. I typically peel and dice the potatoes, boil them and shock them in cold water to make the temperature manageable. If the potato hits the flour and egg while the starch is still hot, the whole mass becomes elastic and gluey and no fun to work with or eat. For this batch, I diced the apple and added it to the potato prior to boiling. On a whim, instead of water I decided to boil the potato and apple in vegetable stock with a pinch of saffron. I love the way saffron brightens otherwise starchy foods and thought it might make the gnocchi a little more interesting on their own.

When the potato was ready, I mushed it up with a whisk since I don't have a ricer,* then added the egg and flour and kneaded it briefly. I don't use the whisk in a beating motion, but like a more conventional potato masher, up-and-down. It's important not to handle the dough too much or the gluten in the flour binds with the starch of the potato and the pasta gets tough and gluey. With a conventional pasta you need to work the dough so the gluten develops, which helps the texture of the finished noodle, not so with gnocchi.

Another difference is that once the gnocchi pasta is formed, I like to cut it quickly and get the gnocchi into boiling water immediately so the gluten in the flour doesn't have time to get rubbery. With a conventional pasta, I'd rest the pasta before rolling to make the dough sturdier. Gnocchi are relatively big on the fork and in the mouth, so they need to be tender and light or they're a drag. I try to get through the process quickly, without using my hands too much**

I rolled the gnocchi pasta into little logs and cut it into lumps, then grooved them with a fork and plopped them in the water. They cook fairly quickly, but not as quick as cut pasta. Once they float, they need about another minute on the boil and they're done. Normally I just dump the pasta pot through a colander to collect the cooked pasta, but gnocchi are fragile enough (when made well) that I usually scoop them out with a wire basket. This also drains them well enough that I can toss them straight into the skillet for finishing.

After boiling, I like to toast gnocchi a little in olive oil or butter. They can be served like that with some herbs, parmigiano, black pepper and salt, or dressed with a sauce. We didn't have much to make a sauce with, but we had some V8 juice, which is pretty tasty, so I thought I'd give that a shot. I've used V8 instead of vegetable stock in other applications and it has proven versatile enough to make me take occasional excursions into the unknown like this.

Once the gnocchi were browned a little, I splashed a glug of V8 into the skillet and tossed the gnocchi, and in no time at all the V8 combined with the olive oil to make a nice thick emulsion that glazed the gnocchi as it intensified. I crushed some dried herbs on them before a final toss, then plated them and grated some Asiago on top. The saffron was a great idea, it made the gnocchi a bright yellow color and gave the body of the gnocchi a delicious whiff of the exotic, and the mineral overtone was balanced by the sweet-sour character of the apple. The glaze was tasty, but the acid in the V8 changed during cooking, leaving a slight chemical undertaste, and made me wish I'd just served these little yellow marvels on their own. I'm sure I could make a reduction of fresh juices that would work better, but I'll still endorse V8 for future experiments.

*My birthday is July 22
**That's what she said

Who Doesn't Like Brussels Sprouts

There's a persistent cultural perception that people don't like brussels sprouts, and I can't figure out where it came from. Everybody I know loves brussels sprouts. Whenever somebody brings out brussels sprouts, somebody is sure to exclaim, "I love brussels sprouts!" The only thing I can think of is that there are a few noisy assholes who don't like them and complain about them publicly, and through these outbursts they have the whole world convinced their opinion matters. They're the climate-change deniers of food. Sprouts are delicious. Only an asshole doesn't like brussels sprouts. Here are some sprouts served as contourno to a sausage ragu. The ragu was pretty standard, just some lumps of sausage and bacon cooked with shallot, garlic, apple, red pepper and tomato, then spooned over some polenta and garnished with grated parmigiano. The brussels sprouts were dressed with a vinaigrette of mustard, honey, garlic, sesame oil and sriracha on top of some big bib leaves of Italian basil. When I served it, Heather clapped her little hands together and said "Brussels sprouts! I love brussels sprouts."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who Gave Us Venison

I grew up eating game meat. My dad Frank Addison Albini was a terrific shot with a rifle and had generally excellent hunting skills. While my dad loved hunting and fishing, he didn't romanticize them. He was filling the freezer, not intellectualizing some caveman impulse or proving his worth as a real man. He spent considerable time working on the accuracy of his weapons and hand-loaded rounds for specific game and conditions, because he considered taking an animal with more than one shot needlessly cruel. Everyone he hunted with aspired to his ability.

In large part I owe my adventurous palate to my dad shooting so many different things. We regularly ate elk and venison, but we also had seasons where pop filled all the tags he could get, and he occasionally made excursions to Alaska, so in addition to all manner of fowl, I've eaten bear, antelope, wild boar, caribou and probably other big mammals I've forgotten. My mother handled this Noah's Ark larder with aplomb, happily using game in place of beef or pork in lasagna, ravioli, sausage and wherever else required.

I was reminded of this all when I discovered a parcel of Venison backstrap (loin) in our freezer. Somebody had obviously given it to us as a gift, probably from some fancy food place that sends things in dry ice and styrofoam, and I had put it in the freezer for later use. Sadly, I do not remember the giver, which implies that I failed to thank whoever it was, but perhaps this public humiliation will succeed in sharpening my social graces where everything else has failed. I defrosted a tidy little loin, which is called the backstrap when it's from a deer. I suppose if squirrel meat ever becomes commercial they'll come up with a name for it on a squirrel.

I love the rub Tim Midyette has developed for red meats, and lately I use it whenever I cook anything that walked on four legs. It's a simple dry mix of espresso, sumac, salt and pepper, and it works magic. I hadn't tried it on game meat, but the discovered venison gave me a perfect excuse. I rubbed it into the loin and let it rest while I prepared to sear it.

I only have one skillet, a simple steel line cook's item I bought at a restaurant supply shop 20 years ago. I also have an iron skillet, but it takes so long to heat up that I only use it when I have time to kill or need to make cornbread. Since I needed to make both the venison loin and a sauce for pasta to serve as a side dish, I had to stage the cooking and manage the skillet resource to serve everything at an appropriate temperature. The venison would need to rest after searing, so first I needed to put water on to boil, then sear the venison and let it rest, which would give me enough time to make a sauce for pasta. So I did that.

Venison like most game meats is exceptionally lean, and has to be served rare or it's tough and nasty. With a bigger cut, this can be difficult to judge, but with a little strip of loin like this, you basically just sear the margins and let it rest to come up to temperature. Takes a couple minutes.

The pasta sauce was pretty simple. I blanched white asparagus in the pasta water, then cut some of the asparagus and sauteed it with some leeks and red pepper in olive oil. When the sauce was almost ready, I dropped the capellini in the water. Capellini is a great pasta to serve with something like this because it's delicate enough not to compete with the vegetables and it cooks in a couple of minutes.

I tossed the pasta with the vegetables and plated it with a couple of the spears of asparagus, then sliced the loin and set it on top. I garnished it with some chopped scallions and mint, drizzled it with olive oil and shaved some asiago over everything. I thought it looked pretty good, but when I brought it to Heather her first words were "Why is there penises in my food?"*

She was referring to the asparagus. Because of the shape.**

*That's what she said no kidding.
**They look like penises.