Friday, November 24, 2017

Best Cookbooks of 2017

A plethora of outstanding 2017 cookbooks made creating a list of the five best a happy challenge. After all, whittling is half the fun of this exercise. I present, in alphabetical order, my picks for the five best cookbooks of 2017.

Bäco: Vivid recipes from the heart of Los Angeles by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock. Chronicle Books.

On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox. Phaidon.

Slow Food Editore – Osteria translated by Natalie Danford. Rizzoli.

State Bird Provisions: A Cookbook by Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski with JJ Goode. Ten Speed Press.

Two Kitchens: Family recipes from Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy. Headline Home.

Why these books?

Flip to any recipe in Bäco and find something exciting to make. Centeno’s cooking reflects Los Angeles’s cosmopolitan olio: The flavors of the Far East mingle with those of the Middle East and Spain, Portugal and France. Without talent, melding these cuisines risks making a mess. But Centeno has the skill to marry different food cultures to create New California dishes. If you like Travis Lett’s Gjelina, you’ll love Centeno’s Bäco.

Jeremy Fox’s On Vegetables gets my vote for best cookbook of 2017. Fox’s collection of recipes will help you to prepare sophisticated yet seductively simple food. Fox’s honest account of his journey to overcome self-doubt and destructive behavior makes On Vegetables worth reading apart from the world-class recipes.

In 2011 I traveled to Bologna and lugged back a very weighty tome entitled Le ricette di Osterie d’Italia by Slow Food Editore. Nancy Danford has translated this massive Italian compendium into English. Yes, this new version leaves out many recipes contained in the original edition, but Rizzoli still deserves kudos for making this English-language Osteria available. (Note: Even trimmed, the new version contains 1000 recipes!) Want to make Crostini con gambi di carciofi from Osteria di Montecodruzzo in Emilia-Romagna? Well now you can even if you can’t read Italian.

State Bird Provisions opens with its recipe for Buttermilk Fried Quail. What follows is a collection of recipes divided into four sections: Savory Larder; Savory Recipes; Dessert Larder; and Sweet Recipes. Boasting big, bold flavors, State Bird does its thing in its own way: Kosho made with Meyer lemon instead of yuzu, and dashi spiked with rosemary, ginger and citrus. Like aiolis? Good! You’re in luck: The book includes 11 different recipes. State Bird Provisions sits proudly alongside my well-worn copy of Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes.

Rachel Roddy follows up her award-winning 2015 cookbook, Five Quarters, with Two Kitchens: Family recipes from Sicily and Rome. Like her first work, Roddy fills Two Kitchens with recipes that you will cook again and again and again. Favorites include: A dead simple yet delicious dish of potatoes and greens; a recipe for meatballs dusted with breadcrumbs, fried and then braised in white wine that bubbles down into a bright sauce; and a comforting braise of chicken with potatoes, anchovies and rosemary. In addition to having a knack of cherry-picking the best recipes from friends, family and others, Roddy writes extremely well. I cannot wait to see what she turns out next.

A lot of books vied for a place on my Best Of list: Bread is Gold by Massimo Bottura; Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden; Kaukasis by Olia Hercules; Tartine All Day by Elisabeth Prueitt; and Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner…Life by Missy Robbins. I really looked forward to Bianco by Chris Bianco, but found it disappointing. Probably my unrealistic expectations. But check it out: Bianco might speak to you.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Straw & Hay Gramigna

Leafing through Michael White’s Classico e Moderno (Random House, 2013), I came across a version of Gramigna con salsiccia that caught my attention. In the recipe’s introduction, White writes: “Befitting its name, “little weeds,” gramigna is made both in yellow and green versions, the latter with a spinach dough, often served together.” The idea of a paglia e fieno (“straw and hay”) version of gramigna intrigued me. Authentic? I pulled my copy of Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (University of California Press, 2009) off the shelf and looked up gramigna. Sure enough, Zanini De Vita covers the straw and hay variation: “The factory-made version varies from small to medium size, in the shape of a tiny worm, and is often found in a paglia e fieno version.” I posted an egg dough version of gramigna (here), but never attempted a green pasta dough for the torchio. No time like the present.

I developed the following green dough recipe using spinach, but nettles, basil, parsley, kale or Swiss chard should also work. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1992), Marcella Hazen advocates finely chopping blanched then well-dried spinach “with a knife, but not in a food processor which draws out too much moisture.” Giuliano Bugialli, in his updated The Fine Art of Italian Cooking (Random House, 1989) also makes his green dough with finely chopped spinach. In Cooking by Hand (Potter, 2003), Paul Bertolli makes his green pasta with a purée of spinach or young nettles using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor. I experimented with puréed, finely chopped and pounded spinach. Each type worked just fine. Pasta made with puréed spinach looks uniformly green. Finely chopped spinach produced a slightly lighter, speckled green pasta.

The following recipe make approximately 250 grams of green pasta dough suitable for a torchio pasta press.

60 grams stemmed spinach leaves
80 grams Central Milling Organic Type 00 Flour Normal (11.2% protein)
80 grams Central Milling Organic Extra Fancy Durum Flour (15%+ protein)
2 grams fine kosher salt
whole egg, approximately 50 grams (without shell)
egg yolk, approximately 20 grams

1. Wash the stemmed spinach leaves—multiple times if necessary—to completely remove any dirt and grit. Bring a sauce pan of salted water to a boil. Cook the spinach for a minute or two. Transfer the spinach into a bowl of cold salted water. Once the spinach cools, remove it and drain well. Squeeze the spinach until it is mostly dry. Purée the blanched spinach with a food processor or immersion blender. Alternatively, finely chop the spinach with a knife. Put aside 17 grams (approximately 1 tablespoon) of puréed spinach to make the pasta dough. Use the remaining spinach in another dish so as not to be wasteful.

2. Sift the flours into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the salt. Using a paddle attachment, mix together the flours and salt.
3. Place a mixing glass on a scale. Tare the scale and crack a medium-sized egg into the glass. The white and yolk should weigh approximately 50 grams, give or take. Crack another egg and add its yolk to the mixing glass, bringing the weight of the eggs to somewhere around 70 grams or so. Add the 17 grams of spinach purée to the eggs. The goal is to create an egg and spinach solution that weighs 91 grams. If the mixture weighs less than 91 grams, then add water to bring the weight up to 91 grams. If the mixture weighs more than 91 grams, remove the overage and reserve in case you need more liquid to make the dough. Use a hand whisk to beat the egg and spinach mixture.
4. With the stand mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the egg and spinach mixture into the mixing bowl in small batches. After adding all of the egg and spinach mixture, continue to mix the dough for about 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to add a little bit more liquid to create a dough with the proper consistency. The dough should look clumpy (see following photo). The finished dough should hold together when squeezed.

5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and add any dough on the paddle to the mixing bowl. Using your hand, bring the dough together into a large ball in the mixing bowl. Knead the dough in the bowl or on a work surface for approximately 30 seconds. Don’t worry if the dough feels hard and is difficult to knead. The dough will soften as it rests. Form the dough into a log narrow enough to ultimately slide into the torchio’s chamber. Tightly wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, insert the dough into the torchio and crank away! After extruding, let the pasta dry at room temperature for a couple of hours.

A few notes and observations. I use a flour mixture containing 50% extra fancy durum flour in order to add strength to the dough. I worried that the spinach purée might compromise the dough’s plasticity without the benefit of the durum flour’s extra gluten. I like how the 50/50 flour blend performed and tasted.
To make my yellow “straw” pasta, I created another 250 grams of egg dough sans spinach. I used the same 50/50 flour blend adding cream and extra egg whites in place of the spinach purée. Together the green and yellow pasta weighed 500 grams—just over a pound—serving 4 to 6 depending upon appetites.

I tried my paglia e fieno gramigna with a number of different white sauces. (I avoided red sauces that might mask the pasta’s yellow and green colors.) I made a cabbage and sausage sauce from a recipe in Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta (Boxtree, 2010). Kenedy braises sausage and cabbage in equal parts chicken stock and milk creating a sauce that tastes rich without being heavy.
My favorite sauce turned out to be a variation of Gramigna al ragù di salsiccia (here) wherein I switched out the tomato purée for a milk/chicken stock mixture. Try it and see what you think.

Feel free to experiment with the green dough using different bronze dies. I made a green rigatoni that worked well in a light cream sauce with pancetta and peas dusted with Parmesan.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Cleaning Torchio Pasta Dies

My Bottene Model B torchio pasta press arrived with two bronze dies to make bigoli (here) and gargarti (here), Venetian variations of spaghettoni and sedani, respectively. Although the torchio originated in the Veneto, the press accommodates a myriad of bronze dies allowing you to extrude classic pasta shapes from across Italy, such as gramigna (here) from Emilia-Romagna or tonnarelli from Lazio.

Search the WWW (or explore this site) and you will find plenty of recipes to make dough suitable for a hand-cranked torchio. You will not, however, find much information on the Internet on how to clean the torchio’s pasta dies. Pasta shops and restaurants that keep pasta machine dies in regular production often store their dies in plain water or water spiked with vinegar (approximately 15 ml per liter of water). Whether you use plain or acidic water, every pastaio I queried recommends changing the soaking water every day.

Although soaking dies makes sense when one keeps a die in constant use, this practice does not work for me and probably not many other home cooks. Here’s my die cleaning routine (which I do not represent as the standard of care). First, after extruding pasta with my torchio, I remove the die and pick out as much of the dough left in the die that I can using a toothpick or other similar small wooden skewer. I can entirely clean certain simple dies, such as my bigoli and gargarti dies, by using a toothpick.

Survey a range of pasta dies and you will notice that many dies have inserts (i.e., bronze plugs that seat into holes bored into the die blank). These inserts, some with open backs while other partially enclosed, do the work of manipulating the dough into the pasta’s shape using surfaces, ridges and/or pins. Certain dies, depending upon their insert’s configuration, take a lot of work to clean. Again, I usually start with a toothpick or small wooden skewer to remove as much dough as possible. I then soak the die in lukewarm soapy water for a couple of hours or overnight. I might again try to pick out more dough by hand and soak the die again. I next use a Waterpik that I purchased to clean dies. I find cleaning dies with a Waterpik yields good results, but also makes quite a damp mess. Spray goes everywhere.

Some dies are so difficult to clean that they need multiple soaks and take a couple of passes with the Waterpik to dislodge all the small pieces of dough that become trapped in their inserts. Nevertheless, the soak and Waterpik method remains the best way that I have found to clean certain complex dies (e.g., lumache, perciatelli and 23mm rigatoni).

Personally, I find cleaning bronze pasta dies A Total Bore. I’ll admit it: I may not buy a die if the die looks like it will be too difficult to clean. Call me lazy, but if a die involves too much work to clean, I am simply less likely to use it. I’m looking at you, perciatelli.