Take Comfort

Dinner: November 14, 2010

Things have been quiet in this little corner of the Internet, but there has been plenty of cooking happening in our kitchen. I’ve skewed pretty heavily toward comfort food dinners of late, despite, or perhaps because of, my long workdays and the fact that a stubborn bug I thought I’d conquered has come back with a vengeance. The dishes that appeal to me these days are the culinary equivalent of a big chunky sweater, a fleece blanket, a roaring fire sending forth the earthy aroma of woodsmoke, something to force the chill from my bones and warm me to my toes. Braises and stews, creamy starchy sides, our enameled cast iron cookware has gotten a workout.

comfort

I wrote up a spin on Mario Batali’s “cacciatore” ages ago, and with a Pat’s Pastured Poulet Rouge in our fridge, one of many goodies we brought home from Saturday’s Wintertime Farmers’ Market, I decided a do-over was in order. There’s a bit of prep involved at the start, breaking down the bird, browning it in batches, soaking dried mushrooms and sautéing fresh, building layers of flavor in your pot, but once everything is in the oven with its parchment cap in place, you can kick back with a Negroni and enjoy the aromas wafting your way. Served over a creamy parmesan polenta, this is comfort food of the highest order.

You can get my recipe at food52.

Two Fast

Meyer lemons

This has turned out to be an odd week for us, schedule-wise. For the sake of record-keeping, here are our last couple of dinners, with minimal comment.

Dinner:  January 13, 2009

I had planned something different for Tuesday night, but I ended up working late, which got me back home even later, and a risotto was what I wanted. I decided to make a leek and parsley “stock” for the cooking liquid, which is a fancy way of saying I cooked chopped leeks and parsley in water until tender, whizzed them with the stick blender and seasoned with salt until it tasted right to me. This liquid went into my standard risotto base, in which I had also sauteed some diced Meyer lemon. I loved the bright flavors here, but I was reminded that I much prefer the texture of Carnaroli rice to Arborio for risottos. Your mileage may vary.

Dinner:  January 14, 2009

Mike has still been eager to take a meal or two during the week, and he did so again last night, turning out his latest version of Mario Batali’s bucatini all’amatriciana, featuring luscious chunks of guanciale from Pat’s Pastured. I think this was his best yet.

Posting may be sporadic as we finish out this week and head into the next one, but hopefully I’ll have time to share what we’re up to in the kitchen. See you soon.

Haute Barnyard

Dinner:  September 15, 2008

We’re big fans of the chicken and pork products available from Pat’s Pastured, and when they’ve got something new available, we usually jump on it, so when we arrived at their stall at the Hope High market a couple of Saturdays ago and saw that they had smoked pork jowls, of course we bought one.

For those who don’t know, the jowl of the pig is the part traditionally used for guanciale, a delicious salt-cured cut similar to bacon or pancetta. It features prominently in two classic pasta sauces: all’amatriciana, with lots of softened onions and tomato; and carbonara, the simple but ultra-rich egg and black pepper combo.

Since Mike had cooked up a batch of all’amatriciana recently with some guanciale I brought home from the North End, we elected to use this piece of jowl in a carbonara. After trimming the skin, he cut the jowl in half and proceeded to break one half down into slices about ¼ inch thick then turned them and cut them into batons. Those went into a dry skillet to render and crisp while our pasta water boiled, and we set the rest aside for later use.

We wanted an ultra-rich carbonara, so four gorgeous Wishing Stone Farm eggs went into a big serving bowl, where they were joined by about ¼ cup each of finely grated Parmagiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano and several grindings of pepper. Our pantry is filled with pasta of all shapes and sizes, but somehow we were out of spaghetti, so I decided to substitute chitarra, figuring the rough texture of the pasta would really help the sauce to cling to the strands. When it was al dente, we added it straight into the serving bowl with the egg and cheese mixture, a little at a time, stirring gently after each addition of pasta. The browned jowl and all its fragrant rendered fat went in next, with a little splash of the pasta water added to lighten it, and again we tossed the pasta gently so everything was evenly coated.

chitarra

While Mike got our wine ready, I plated, adding some of the pasta to our bowls, grating a bit more cheese over the top, and placing a single egg yolk in the middle of each serving. I finished each plate with a bit of chopped fresh parsley and another dusting of black pepper, then served them. That extra yolk was perhaps a bit over the top, but so worth it – every bite was creamy and rich, punctuated by the occasional sharp bite of pepper and nuggets of sweet, earthy pork.

Theme and Variations

You’ve probably figured out by now that my Big Food Project for this week was to make homemade pasta. Now, this isn’t entirely new for me – in another time and place, I made pasta from scratch often, using a hand-crank pasta roller (one of the first kitchen gadgets I ever bought for myself). But as I got older, developed some issues with my hand and arm strength, and moved into a series of progressively tinier kitchens, that old hand-crank pasta roller did little more than gather dust. At our last apartment, there wasn’t a single patch of countertop or piece of furniture we could have attached it to to use it, so we ended up donating it in one of our mass culls before the move.

But I missed making pasta from scratch. I read with envy as bloggers near and far worked with varying proportions of flour and eggs and sometimes other things added to the mix, and kneaded and rolled and made gorgeous, silken sheets of dough. I missed the smell of it, the texture, and the satisfying feeling of sitting down to a meal that was truly a labor of love.

I yearned to make fresh pasta again, and my parents knew this, so a few years ago they gifted me with a shiny red Kitchen Aid mixer, my first ever, complete with pasta making attachments. I was so thrilled to receive yet another thoughtful gift from them, but there was one problem: we had nowhere. to. put. it. We had nowhere near enough counter space for it, but even worse, adding another box of stuff to our already cluttered apartment was just too much. So “Big Red,” as we had dubbed her, sat, unopened, under my desk at my old job until my last week there. As I neared my last day, I made arrangements to have her shipped, and she was waiting at our new place when we arrived. Big Red was the very first appliance I unpacked and set up in our new kitchen.

So I was here, and Big Red was here with her lovely attachments, and why it has taken me this long to get to the pasta making I have NO idea, but I finally did it, and the first batch was so quick, so easy, and so satisfying that I immediately made a second batch, varying the recipe just a bit.

There are probably as many ways to make fresh pasta as there are Italian grandmothers, but I decided to keep things straightforward to start, consulting my trusted Marcella Hazan for guidance. The proportions were simple: 1.5 cups flour (I did veer from her recipe by using “00” flour rather than unbleached all-purpose) plus 2 whole eggs. That’s it. No salt, no milk, no olive oil, no water, just flour and eggs and 8 minutes of kneading before I would have my dough.

This first batch didn’t take the whole amount of flour, but it still looked and felt right as I kneaded it, shaped it into a disc, wrapped it in plastic and left it to rest for a bit. I divided it into six pieces, removed one, wrapped the remainder tightly and held my breath as I turned on Big Red and began to roll out my dough. And in just minutes I had this:

Hello, lovely.

I rolled out my remaining pieces of dough, amazed at the speed and ease of which it was all happening, and after they dried just a bit, I cut them by hand into wide, pappardelle-like ribbons. They were, shall we say, “rustic.” But I was so pleased.

We had them for dinner that very night, dressed with an earthy chicken liver ragu. They cooked up beautifully, the pasta tender and delicate but still with a nice bite.

version 2

For my second batch of dough, I varied the recipe by using two whole eggs plus two egg yolks, to 1.5 cups of my “00” flour. This did take the entire amount of flour as I kneaded, and at 8 minutes the dough was definitely tighter than my first batch. Again, I let it rest for a bit before rolling it out into sheets, and I decided to break out the spaghetti cutter attachment. I let the ribbons of spaghetti dry before placing them into a zip-top bag and placing them into the freezer, where they remained until they became part of last night’s dinner.

Dinner:  May 15, 2008

The sauce was inspired by the linguine with sardines and fennel we love so much, a mixture of caramelized fennel and onions, lemon juice and zest, a few chile flakes for heat, and some beautiful marinated anchovies we picked up at Venda Ravioli recently. The finished dish got a sprinkling of fennel fronds, toasted breadcrumbs and more lemon zest. I was a bit worried about how the thin strands of spaghetti would do when they hit the boiling water – they looked so delicate – but they cooked up beautifully, and they had this great springiness to them which made them really fun to twirl around our forks and bite into.

Mike and I both agreed that this first foray into pasta making with the help of our turbocharged assistant was a big success. I can’t wait to do it again.

(You can view my Flickr photoset here.)

On the Hunt

Dinner:  December 4, 2007

My earliest memories of chicken cacciatore are of the Italian chain restaurant variety, of sauces loaded with chunky bell pepper and an inexplicable blanket or filling of cheese on or inside the chicken. The dish was more heavy than hearty, and as such it was never a favorite of mine. As I got older and my love of Italian food led me to convert to the church of Marcella, Lidia and Mario, I learned there was a better way. A simpler way, in fact, because really, this “hunters-style” braise needs little more than mushrooms, onions, tomato and herbs to make it a cacciatore.

paste

This is a loose adaptation of Mario’s Molto Italiano recipe which keeps his addition of pancetta as well as the delicious garlic and rosemary rub for the chicken, but I’ve chosen to go with whole, small cipollini onions in place of diced, as well as the richer, earthier taste of dried porcini mushrooms in the sauce. Don’t let the browning and peeling/chopping steps put you off, because once everything is in the pot all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the delicious aromas filling your home – the end result is well worth the effort, and a satisfying meal on a blustery winter night.

cipollini

Hunter’s-Style Chicken

1 chicken (about 3 lbs.), cut into quarters, or an equivalent amount of skin-on parts of your choice
3 large garlic peeled garlic cloves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
Olive oil
1 cup dried porcini
1 cup hot tap water
12 small cipollini onions, peeled and trimmed
2 thick slices pancetta
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup white wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano or marjoram
Several sprigs fresh thyme
Red chile flakes to taste

Arrange the chicken pieces on a platter and pat them dry. In a food processor or mini chopper, pulse the garlic, salt, pepper and rosemary, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub the paste all over the chicken pieces and let them sit in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.

Place porcini in a bowl, cover with hot tap water and let them sit until the mushrooms are soft. Remove the mushrooms from the liquid and set aside. Strain the liquid to remove any grit and reserve.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat and add the chicken pieces in batches, allowing them to brown on all sides. When the last chicken pieces have been browned, remove them to a platter, discard the oil and any burnt garlic from the pot and return it to the heat. Add the pancetta and let it render and brown for a few minutes. Add the onions and porcini and a pinch of salt. Make a hot spot on the side of the pan and add the tomato paste, allowing it to cook for a minute or two before stirring it through.

Add the wine and let it come to a boil, then reduce the heat and add the reserved porcini liquid, the tomatoes with their juice, the oregano or marjoram, the thyme sprigs and the chile flakes. Stir well, crushing the tomatoes with the back of a spoon, then return the chicken pieces to the pan along with any juices that have accumulated on the platter. Cover the pan and cook over low heat for 30 minutes or more, until the chicken is cooked through and very tender and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Serve chicken and sauce over soft polenta, garnishing with additional fresh rosemary or thyme if desired.

Linguine con Sarde

Dinner:  May 17, 2007

It can be difficult to do things like cooking or even just eating when life hands you something ugly, but I try to use cooking as a coping mechanism – a distraction of sorts, a way to busy myself with the process of creating something good and restorative for myself and those around me. Feeding yourself and those you love is a basic, nurturing thing, and spending a bit of time in the kitchen, even when I feel like I’m just going through the motions, is something I rely on to get through rough patches.

I am grateful at times like these that we tend to sketch out menus for the week in advance, and that we have an abundance of pantry staples to pull out when we need something nourishing but fuss-free. As much as I love being inspired by what is fresh and shiny at the market, sometimes I just need to cook up one of those meals that I have done countless times and don’t have to think too much about.

We’ve always got sardines in the pantry for snacking or light lunches, but I also love using them with pasta. We generally get the King Oscar brand, which I believe are readily available in most stores, but we recently picked up a box of these imported Portuguese sardines at Russ and Daughters, so I decided to use them.

I got a big pot of water boiling for the pasta while I trimmed and sliced a fennel bulb and chopped half of a large ripe tomato (I used fresh because we had a leftover fresh tomato on hand; you could certainly substitute chopped canned tomatoes – about a cup worth). I placed about 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat, and then added three fat cloves of garlic (peeled and chopped). I added two anchovy filets to the garlic and oil and mashed them with the back of my spoon until they melted into the oil. The fennel went in next with a pinch of salt, and I cooked it for about 5 minutes. I added a splash of white vermouth next and let that bubble down, then added the tomatoes and a splash of sherry vinegar. I stirred this all together, lidded it up, and let it simmer over low heat while the pasta cooked.

I cooked about half a pound of linguine in boiling salted water until it was short of al dente – roughly 6-7 minutes. Shortly before the pasta was ready, and after the sauce had reduced a bit, I added my sardines to the sauce – one can, with their oil. I broke the sardines up just a little with my spoon, added the linguine to the sauce along with a little bit of the pasta water and tossed everything through. I placed the pasta into bowls and topped it with a little fresh parsley and toasted breadcrumbs. (I had intended to top the pasta with fennel fronds and lemon zest, but frankly, I forgot.)

Mike poured a couple of glasses of Nero d’Avola, and as we sat in the dim light of our living room with our plates in our laps, quietly eating our meal, I felt a bit of calm come over me. Despite everything that was going on, I was eating good food with someone I love very much beside me, and I knew that things would be all right. Besides, as any cook knows, you sometimes need a little something bitter to bring out the sweet.

Spaghetti with Ramps

Dinner:  April 23, 2007

One of the surest signs of spring in these parts is the appearance of ramps at markets and on menus around town. For those of you who may not have heard of them before, ramps are a variety of wild leek native to states along the eastern coast of the U.S. from the Carolinas northward. They’re only around for a short time, and they’re delicious, so when they’re available, we tend to binge on them.

ramps

When word got out on Saturday that the ramps had finally hit Union Square, we were sure that they’d be gone by the time we made it in to the city, but to our surprise and delight, there were plenty left when we arrived. We grabbed four fat bunches and began brainstorming.

I recently saw a segment on NY1 featuring chef April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig; they did a brief interview and shot lots of footage of her in the kitchen, and I noticed at one point she was preparing bundles of ramps with the stems wrapped in bacon. I used half of our ramps in that preparation as part of our Sunday brunch, and we decided to use the remainder for Monday’s dinner in an equally simple preparation – spaghetti with ramps. I basically riffed on Mario Batali’s recipe, tinkering with the proportions a bit and spiking the toasted breadcrumbs with a bit of lemon zest to brighten up the flavors. It’s a delicious dish, quick and easy to put together, and it really lets the flavor of the ramps shine through.

2 bunches, cleaned

Spaghetti with Ramps

2 bundles small ramps, cleaned and trimmed (ours were very small so we used them whole; if you have larger ramps, separate the white and green parts, and allow the whites to cook for a few minutes before adding the greens)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes
Kosher salt
1/3 to 3/4 lb. thin spaghetti
1/8 cup breadcrumbs, toasted
Zest of 1/2 lemon

Cook spaghetti in an abundant amount of boiling salted water about 7 minutes, until it is just short of al dente.

While the spaghetti cooks, warm the olive oil in a skillet. Add the ramps, chile flakes and a pinch of salt and sauté until bright green. Add the spaghetti with a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water and toss through. Allow the pasta to continue cooking another minute or two and serve in warmed bowls. Mix breadcrumbs and lemon zest and sprinkle on top of the pasta.