Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nettle Liqueur

Makers of homemade Italian liqueurs, rejoice! In 2014 the Aboca Museum in Tuscany released an English version of Renato Vicario’s 2011 treatise on Italian liqueurs. This new edition, entitled Italian Liqueurs: History and Art of a Creation, presents over 140 Italian liqueur recipes. This in and of itself warrants enthusiastic applause. But Vicario’s work also includes an excellent history of liqueurs; a section on methods and techniques; a concise botanical dictionary; a pharmaceutical glossary; and a comprehensive resource section to help the reader find herbs and spices. Like Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, Vicario’s Italian Liqueurs represents an ark: his work preserves regional recipes for aperitifs, digestifs and bitters (amari) that, with time, risked disappearing.

Vicario organizes his collection of Italian liqueur recipes into five sections: Fruit; Berry; Citrus; Herbal; and Other. In each of these sections I found both the familiar and the very unfamiliar. Under his Fruit chapter, Vicario includes recipes for an apple, a cherry and a wild plum liqueur, but also instructions on how to make an apple seed and a peach stone liqueur. In his Citrus section, Vicario includes a recipe for limoncello (actually three different versions), Orange Elixir (my bottle will be ready in time for Christmas!), and Mother-in Law Milk (which is very similar to Liquore latte di vecchia (here)). In his catch-all Other section, Vicario shares recipes for nut, egg and spice liqueurs, and a recipe for Tomato Elixir made with green tomatoes and tomato leaves.

Italian Liqueurs’ largest—and to my mind, the most interesting—chapter covers 63 different herbal liqueurs. Vicario includes recipes for a diverse range of herbal aperitifs, digestifs and bitters such as: Absinthe Liqueur; Alpine Bitter; Artichoke Digestif; Cardoon Bitter; Carnation Liqueur; Eternal Youth Bitter; Juniper Essence; Melissa Water; Mugo Pine Elixir; Linden Liqueur; Piemontese Bitter; Rhubarb Tonic; Sunflower Liqueur; and Trappist Bitter. And these drinks are just the tip of the herbal liqueur iceberg.

Throughout Italian Liqueurs Vicario stresses the importance of carefully sourcing a liqueur’s ingredients. He writes: “…the most important part of liqueur preparation is the choice of the ingredients. You MUST use the freshest, best ripened, most organic and delectable herbs, plants and fruits you want to add to your liqueurs....Use everything local and in season: this is possibly the most important consideration in the selection of your ingredients and it cannot be stressed enough. Please do not make a strawberry liqueur in January, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere.”

As I reside in the Northern Hemisphere and with spring currently awakening, I decided to try Italian Liqueurs’ recipe for Nettle Liqueur. Stinging nettles abound in my neighborhood; a short walk down my street and into the woods yielded bags of young nettle buds.  For this recipe, however, you only need a couple of handfuls (handled with gloves, of course). Here is Vicario’s recipe for Nettle Liqueur.

1 liter of 190 proof alcohol
1 liter of de-mineralized water
600 grams of sugar
40 nettle fresh buds (top of the new growth) (Urtica dioica)
5 peppermint leaves (Mentha piperita)

Put the fresh leaves and buds in a jar with the alcohol for 8 days. Then make a syrup by boiling the water and the sugar until the sugar has dissolved, and let cool. Add the syrup to the alcohol mixture in the jar and let it steep for 1 day. Filter the mixture and bottle. Leave in a cool, dry place at least 1 week before consuming.

So how does a nettle liqueur taste? To me: herbaceous, but not too green, and sweet with a hint of mint. If you make this drink, watch the color of the liqueur change during its preparation from a beautiful deep emerald green to a bright olive.

Like the majority of recipes in Italian Liqueurs, making Nettle Liqueur is a snap. In the first half of his book, Vicario describes how to correctly prepare liqueurs and why he recommends certain ingredients like 190 proof alcohol and de-mineralized water. He also explains how and why you filter liqueurs.

I recommend Italian Liqueurs to anyone interested in making homemade liqueurs. (I ordered my copy from Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York.) Vicario’s knowledge and enthusiasm for these regional drinks shines throughout his book. He begins his work recounting his childhood memories of his Emilian great-grandmother rolling pasta, canning tomatoes sauce, and making the family’s liqueurs that, he writes, were absolutely necessary on a well-stocked table. “Who had ever heard of not serving a Nocino, or at least a Ratafià at the end of a meal?” Thankfully, Vicario has authored a book that preserves these regional Italian recipes thus permitting us to make and offer these gracious beverages to our friends and family.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Rigatoni Die No. 98

About five years ago I wrote (here) about using a bronze pasta die designed for a restaurant pasta extruder in a Venetian hand-cranked torchio pasta press. Since writing that article, I’ve amassed fourteen bronze dies that I use to make pasta at home with my torchio. My latest die is a 13mm rigatoni (No. 98) from Emiliomiti (here).  

Oretta Zanini De Vita writes in her Encyclopedia of Pasta (2009) that rigatoni goes by a host of names throughout Italy: bombardoni; cannaroni; cannerozzi rigati; ciofelloni; gnocconi; maniche; rigatoni romani; rigatoncini; scaffittuni; scorzasellari (“celery peelers”); trivelli; and tufoloni rigati. The shape’s defining features are its tubular form and its ridges. Rigatoni’s name comes from the Italian word rigato meaning lined, striped or ruled. The shape’s ridges allow it to hold sauce better than smooth tubular shapes such as paccheri or ziti.

If dimensions interest you, The Geometry of Pasta (2010) by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy gives rigatoni’s specs: length 1.8 inches; width 0.6 inches; and wall thickness 1mm. (Note: Emiliomiti sells a range of rigatoni dies. In addition to my No. 98, I own a No. 116 die that makes a 23mm rigatoni.) My No. 98 rigatoni die creates pasta that measures up pretty close to The Geometry of Pasta’s numbers—a tad smaller in width, but damn close on wall thickness. When using my torchio to make rigatoni with a No. 98 die, I cut after every half revolution of the torchio’s handle. This delivers two rigatoni just under 1.8 inches in length.

Most factory rigatoni consists of semolina flour and water, but I make rigatoni with an egg dough. To serve 2, I use 135 grams of Type 00 flour from Central Milling and about 69 to 72 grams of an egg mixture made with a whole egg and an egg yolk. I say “about” because I play around with the amount of liquid depending on how dry I want the dough. Less liquid produces a sandy mixture closer to what one uses to make a commercial extruded semolina and water dough. A hand-cranked torchio needs a dough with a higher percentage of moisture than a typical factory-extruded dough. Without this extra liquid, the torchio becomes really hard to turn by hand and the dough extrudes unevenly from the die (even after a hydration period). I aim for a dough that gives the finished pasta a rough, bronze die-finish, but that evenly extrudes without an excessive amount of force.

So after making rigatoni with a No. 98 bronze die, how do you dress it? A handful of sauces traditionally pair with rigatoni. If you’re a staunch traditionalist from Rome, consider making Rigatoni con la pajata (Rigatoni with veal intestines). Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio (2013) by Oretta Zanini De Vita and La Pasta (2010) published by Slow Food Editore both have a recipe for this classic Roman dish. Zanini De Vita writes that pajata “is the Roman name for the first section of the intestine of the milk-fed calf, used with its chyme. Today it is difficult to find, and lamb intestine is used instead of calf. Its flavor, however, is much stronger.” If finding pajata is difficult to find in Lazio, good luck finding it here in United States (if available at all).

Many other sauces traditionally compliment rigatoni. For pork lovers, try Rigatoni alla gricia made with guanciale (cured pork jowl) and pecorino cheese. Add tomatoes and onions to this sauce and you have a version of Rigatoni all’Amatriciana. Rigatoni alla carbonara is another delicious classic (again, made with guanciale or pancetta). Rigatoni can pretty much handle any hearty sauce that meets your fancy.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Parsley Salsa Verde

Last month I shared my picks for the five best cookbooks of 2015 (here). Like many cookbook commentators and critics, I really liked Travis Jett’s Gjelina, and the book made my “Best Of” list. From cover-to-cover, Jett’s cookbook offers tempting recipes for straightforward, bold food.

One of my favorite chapters in Gjelina is Condiments and Pickles. Lett shares his take on classics such as charmoula, gremolata, chimichurri and harissa. I particularly like his Parsley Salsa Verde, which is easy to make from ingredients readily available year round. Although many salsa verde recipes include mustard and/or egg, Lett keeps his version of this Italian sauce simple with grated lemon zest and red pepper flakes adding zing. He writes that the sauce “brings a lovely herbaceous briny note to things like grilled squid, grilled eggplant, and wood-roasted sunchokes.” I think it tastes really good with Roast Chicken (here). Lett’s recipe makes 1 cup / 210 grams.

3/4 cup [20 g] chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
10 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
1 Tbsp capers, rinsed and chopped
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
Pinch of crushed pepper flakes
1 garlic clove
2/3 cup [160 ml] extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar

In a small bowl, combine the parsley, anchovies, capers, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. Using a Microplane grater, grate the garlic into the mixture, add the olive oil, stir to combine, and season with salt. Allow to stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature, and stir in the vinegar just before serving.

Lett writes that “[a]s for most herb-based sauces, it’s a good idea to make the base ahead of time and then spike it with vinegar just before using to avoid oxidation.” If you want to mix things up, you can substitute basil for half of the chopped parsley to make a basil salsa verde. When my so-called Roman mint (calamintha nepeta) comes this this year, I’m adding some to the mix.

A quick note. I used 4 large salt-packed anchovies the first time I made this green sauce. I then tried the recipe with 10 oil-packed fillets. I prefer the salt-packed version because, to my taste, it has a better briny flavor. But give both versions a try and see what you like best.