Sunday, August 29, 2010

Abbacchio alla Cacciatora

If you find yourself in Rome, opportunities to Bunbury abound. Tour books invariably guide you to the Pantheon, Colosseum, Spanish Steps and any number of wonderful fountains. However, you should not miss the opportunity to enjoy authentic Roman cooking.

Getting to the essence of any local cuisine is challenging. The food of a geographic region rarely evolves in isolation. Yet over thousands of year historians and food writers have described the food of Rome as simple, direct and frugal. Roman cuisine has a “pride of place” featuring ingredients such as mint, olives, breads, anchovies, eels, artichokes, celery, chicory, fava beans, tomatoes, ricotta cheese, lamb, pork and ox.

These local ingredients marry in a number of ways to form Roman dishes. Gently braise artichoke hearts stuffed with Roman mint and garlic and you have Carciofi alla romana.
Combine anchovy, garlic and olive oil and then use the mixture to dress a bitter local chicory to make Insalata di puntarelle con alici
Simmer pieces of oxtail in wine and tomatoes with ample celery to create Coda alla vaccinara.
If in Rome during the Easter season, seek out Abbacchio alla cacciatora. In this dish alla cacciatora means that milk-fed baby lamb cooks “hunter’s style” in a sauce of garlic, rosemary, sage, anchovies, white wine and red wine vinegar.

If you want to recreate this Roman dish here in the States, you're in luck. The following recipe for Abbacchio alla cacciatora comes from the new English-language translation of an outstanding and comprehensive cookbook from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina called La Cucina - The Regional Cooking of Italy [2009]. The Accademia works to safeguard Italy’s culinary tradition. The book’s Italian editor likens the work, which contains over 2,000 recipes, to a census of local Italian cooking. The Accademia traces all of the recipes to a specific Italian region (and often to a specific town or city). This cookbook warrants your consideration if you are looking for great authentic Italian food.

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp. rosemary leaves
  • 2 anchovies, boned
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2¼ lbs. leg of lamb [milk-fed or Spring lamb, if available], cut in pieces weighing about 1 oz. each
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup dry white wine, such as Orvieto
  • Salt and pepper

In a wooden mortar grind the garlic, rosemary, and anchovies to obtain a paste. Add the vinegar, a little at a time, and mix to obtain a dense sauce. Rinse and pat dry the pieces of lamb. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and brown it over moderate heat. Stir from time to time with a wooden spoon to cook them evenly. Pour in the wine and turn up the heat; when the wine has evaporated, add the vinegar sauce. Cover and cook for 2 hours at low heat stirring often. Let the lamb rest for at least half an hour before serving; the longer the lamb rests in its pan, the greater will be its flavor. Serve hot.

Ada Boni’s Italian Region Cooking [1969], another outstanding cookbook, also contains a recipe for Abbacchio alla cacciatora with a few variations. Boni adds sage, an ingredient used in most other Abbacchio alla cacciatora recipes I reviewed. The most significant difference between Boni’s recipe and the Accademia’s is the cooking time. Both recipes call for small, even-sized pieces of lamb, but Boni cooks her lamb in sauce for 15 minutes while the Accademia cooks its lamb for 2 hours. A bit puzzling, but do not let this difference put you off. Recipes are guides and not gospels. Taste as you go. After trying a recipe once or twice you will sense what works and what does not. From experience I try the lamb about 45 minutes to 1 hour after adding the vinegar sauce.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making Fresh Pasta

What distinguishes good from great when judging cookbooks? The factors will vary based upon personal preferences. One gauge that I use is whether the book sets a standard of excellence or scholarship in its subject area. Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] more than measures up. It has quickly become an essential volume in my cooking library. Over the coming months this book will help to guide us as we explore a range of different pasta shapes and the different techniques and dough used to make each shape.

Encyclopedia of Pasta documents “the traditional shapes of Italian pasta—the long, the short, the layered, the rolled, the stretched, and the stuffed.” Zanini De Vita is thoughtful and thorough. Each pasta is categorized and examined: what are its ingredients; how is it made; what are its alternative names; how is it traditionally served; and where is it made. She concludes each entry with additional remarks about the shape.

The book presents 310 different shapes of pasta. Some of these are familiar: fettuccine, lasagna, ravioli and spaghetti. Many other are less common: agnolotti, corzetti, garganelli and tajarin. Most of the pastas are exotic: blutnudeln (a thin flat noodle made with rye flour, wheat flour, eggs and pig’s blood) and zizziridd’ (a small cubed pasta added to bean soup).

Although Zanini De Vita overviews each pasta’s ingredients, she does not give measured amounts. For example, we learn that Fregnacce, a lozenge shaped pasta found in Northern Lazio, Abruzzo and Le Marche, is made with “durum-wheat and eggs or water”. At first it might seem that this lack of detail is a shortcoming. Not so. Encyclopedia of Pasta does not pretend to be a “recipe book”—it is a reference book. (I only wish a photograph of each pasta accompanied each entry.) But happily you can use Zanini De Vita’s book as a guide and inspiration when making fresh pasta. With a handful of dough recipes and practice, many of the pastas in the book are easily achievable.

Here are the shapes I plan to feature in upcoming posts: pappardelle, toppe, cavatelli, maccarones inferrettati and agnolotti. Each of these pastas presents the opportunity to explore a different dough and techniques. Do not be surprised if this list changes over time. (Additions are more likely than deletions.) Each time I dive into Zanini De Vita’s excellent work, I come away wanting to master another shape of pasta.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Meini o Pani de Mei

From Miss Fairfax we learn that “cake is rarely seen in the best houses nowadays.” But what about sweet corn cookies from Italy? Meini o Pani de Mei are always fashionable, especially with tea or after dinner served with coffee or a glass of white wine.

Italian cookies are remarkably diverse. Regional factors such as trade, prosperity, religious celebrations and geography influence the many variations. You find more butter-based cookies in the cooler, dairy-rich North and more olive oil- and ground nut-based cookies in the warmer South. Regions that grow corn, such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, have traditional maize cookies. Sicily excels in almond production and almond paste cookies are found throughout the region. Piedmont’s hazelnut orchards beget hazelnut cookies.

The following recipe for Meini o Pani de Mei is from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker [1985]. Although classified by Field as bread, Meini are more cookie than bun, muffin or scone. They are traditionally enjoyed on 24 April “as a celebration of the liberation of [the Milanese] countryside from the assault of a ferocious highwayman and his brigands during the Middle Ages.” The Milanese also traditionally serve these cookies on All Souls’ Day to bring cheer on a day of remembrance. These are happy cookies.

  • 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (250 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1¼ cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ cup plus 2 teaspoons milk
  • 3¼ cups (450 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (300 grams) fine yellow cornmeal
  • 3½ teaspoons baking powder
  •  2 drops almond oil or 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
  • About 1/3 cup (70 grams) granulated sugar
  • ½ cup (70 grams) confectioners’ sugar

By Mixer Only         Using the whisk if you have one, beat the butter, 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, and the honey for 1 to 2 minutes at low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg, egg yolk, and 2 teaspoons milk and continue beating for 1 minute. Mix in the flour, cornmeal, and baking powder. Add ½ cup milk and the almond oil and mix at the lowest speed until blended. The dough should be stiff but not heavy. Knead briefly by hand or mixer, sprinkling with additional flour as needed, until buttery, soft, pliable, and slightly sticky.

Shaping         Line baking sheets with parchment paper or buttered brown paper. Cut the dough into 15 equal pieces (3 ounces or 90 grams each). Flour your hands and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten each ball into a ½-inch-thick patty, the size of a hamburger and the width of a woman’s hand. Place on the paper-lined baking sheets.

Glazing         Brush the tops with water and then sprinkle with granulated sugar, making sure a thin layer of sugar covers each bun. You can shake off the excess sugar by holding on to the paper and shaking the sugar up and over the edge of the pan. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a sifter or sieve and sift the sugar heavily over the buns so that they look as if they’re lost in a blizzard of sugar. The excess powdered sugar can stay on the paper because it will not caramelize.
Baking         Heat oven to 375ºF. Bake until the sugar on top has cracked into an irregular design, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on racks. Makes 15 buns.

It is hard to imagine that a recipe containing the words patty, hamburger and woman’s hand can produce such excellent cookies.

Some thoughts and comments on this recipe: Field calls for 1¼ cups (250 grams) granulated sugar but only adds 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons when creaming the butter. The recipe does not account for the 1 tablespoon difference. I have baked different batches using each measurement and the cookies taste just fine either way. The 1¼ cups (250 grams) version is sweeter.

Over time I have moved from larger to smaller Meini. The recipe divides the dough into pieces weighing approximately 3 ounces or 90 grams. The accompanying photographs show pieces weighing approximately 2 ounces or 60 grams. This smaller size yields 24 cookies instead of 15. I like to serve the smaller cookies as a simple dessert. If you decide to bake smaller cookies, check them after baking for 15 minutes.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Green Beans

If cucumbers are not available, even for ready money, how about green beans? They are delicious, compliment many other dishes, and when cooked using a simple technique, easy to prepare ahead of time to serve with your meal.

To cook well, you only need desire, good ingredients, and a handful of skills and techniques. Blanching is one such technique: cooking an ingredient, typically a green vegetable, in boiling water. After mastering this simple process, success is virtually assured every time you cook green beans.

An English cookbook by Heston Blumenthal titled Family Food [2002] expertly explains blanching. Blumenthal is the chef at The Fat Duck, a Michelin three star restaurant known for its application of science to cooking and its wildly innovative cuisine (e.g., a Nitrogen Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse). The recipes in Family Food are on the other side of this food spectrum. He presents his recipes for Roast Leg of Lamb, Glazed Carrots and Rice Pudding. Blumenthal’s idea for Family Food “is to get children eating adult food and parents discovering new dishes or rediscovering ones they already know.” Included in Family Food is a six-page discourse on blanching green beans. It is brilliant in its clarity and scientific curiosity. Here are Heston Blumenthal’s steps to perfectly cooked green beans.

1. Take a casserole (not an aluminium pan or the vegetables will discolour) and fill it with water, measuring out 1 litre [4.23 cups] for every 100g [3.52 ounces] of beans.

2. Top and tail the beans, either using a knife or, preferably, by hand. Hold the bean in one hand and with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, gently snap off each end of the bean, carefully pulling away so that any vein running down the side comes away with it.

3. Soak the beans in cold water for a couple of hours before cooking. Quite often, these beans will have been picked over a month before being shipped. Soaking will help to rehydrate them.

4. Bring the water to the boil on a high heat, with a lid on.

5. If you have soft water, do not add any salt. If, however, your water is hard, you can either cook the beans in neutral bottled water, which you may find an unnecessary expense, or add a minuscule amount of bicarbonate of soda (this is a little risky, though, as too much and the taste and texture may be ruined).

6. Drain the beans completely and when the water is boiling, plunge them in. Immediately put the lid on and boil until tender—start testing them after 3 minutes but they may take up to 10 minutes.

7. Have a bowl of iced or cold water to hand. When the beans are cooked, test by tasting them (they should have a slight resistance but no crunch), drain them through a colander and tip into the cold water. Do not, as some people do, put the pan under the tap—the beans will take too long to cool down. Do not, either, leave the beans under cold, running water or they will lose their flavour.

8. As soon as the beans are cold, drain them and set them aside until you want to use them. You can prepare them a few hours in advance, which can be quite convenient.

9. When you are ready to serve then beans, simply reheat them in a mix of one third unsalted butter to two thirds water (tap water is fine for this stage). Simmer them for a couple of minutes with salt and freshly ground black pepper, drain and serve. Do not heat the beans in too much of this emulsion; use approximately 50g [1.76 ounces] of butter and 100ml [3.4 ounces] for every 100g [3.52 ounces] of beans.

A few observations and notes on Blumenthal’s process. If you do the math, you will quickly see that one key factor is using a lot of boiling water to cook your vegetables. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry calls this blanching technique “Big-Pot Blanching”. You want the beans to cook as quickly as possible to maintain color and flavor. A lot of boiling water helps to prevent the water temperature from dropping when you add the beans. Blumenthal’s blanching experiments at The Fat Duck also prove that cooking with the lid on does not negatively impact the color of the green beans.

You may notice that Blumenthal does not recommend salting the blanching water if you have soft water. Many chefs, such as Thomas Keller, disagree and add large amounts of salt. Molecular scientists and food chemists have weighed in on this debate and I am not aware of a clear winner. With disagreement among professionals at the highest level, you can feel pretty secure on whatever side of the debate you decide to join. Personally, I add enough sea salt (i.e., a handful or two) so that the water tastes like seawater.

Finally, Blumenthal shocks the beans in cold water to stop their cooking. Again, there is some debate about this last step among chefs; Alice Waters in Chez Panisse Vegetables says that this step robs flavor while Blumenthal and Thomas Keller claim using ice water is essential. In this case I side with the ice bathists, but try it each way and you be the judge.