Friday, December 21, 2012

Rice Pudding

Let’s celebrate the holiday season with something sweet: rice pudding. This simple dessert plays a special role during the Christmas season around the world, particularly in Northern Europe. My favorite version comes from Guy Savoy: Simple French Recipes for the Home Cook [2004] by Guy Savoy. His recipe epitomizes homemade comfort food: short-grain rice simmered in a pot of milk and cream seasoned with vanilla and sugar. Savoy’s light and refined rice pudding makes an excellent dessert for a special meal or Christmas feast.

Guy Savoy: Simple French Recipes for the Home Cook follows-up his La Cuisine de mes Bistrots [1998]. In his Introduction to Simple French Recipes, Savoy writes: “I felt the need to reintroduce the art of home cooking. And just like my previous book, this one teaches how to succeed at what is simple….” Savoy’s presents his take on bonne femme classics: Dandelion Salad with Poached Egg; Swiss Chard Gratin; Roasted Chicken with Mashed Potatoes; and Veal Kidneys in Mustard Sauce. Savoy also includes recipes with a modern bent that embody the spirit of simple food: Cold Carrot Soup with Star Anise and Mozzarella; Scallops in a Lemongrass Nage; and Grilled Pork Ribs with Peaches.

I think the best dish in this worthwhile cookbook is Savoy’s outstanding Rice Pudding. Its creamy rich flavor yet surprisingly light texture makes his version a standout when compared to other rice puddings. It tastes as sophisticated as it is simple. Savoy writes: “For me, this is the dessert par excellence. It took me thirty years to come up with the nerve to put it on my dessert menu.” Here is his recipe.

Preparation Time: 5 minutes + 2 hours for chilling
Cooking Time: 1 hour
Serves: 4

½ cup short-grained white rice
2½ cups milk
1¼ cups heavy cream
2 vanilla beans
¼ cup sugar

Place the rice in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and drain into a strainer.

Return the rice to the pan and add the milk and cream. Split the vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape the seeds with the tip of a paring knife. Add the pods and seeds to the saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 50 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the sugar and simmer for 10 minutes more. Pour the rice pudding into a small serving bowl, discarding the vanilla beans. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Serve the pudding at room temperature.

Savoy’s Rice Pudding is one of many excellent recipes in Simple French Recipes for the Home Cook. If this simple, straightforward cooking appeals to you, take a look at Vegetable Magic [1987], another strong Savoy cookbook. It is full of satisfying dishes in the style of Simple French Recipes for the Home Cook. Although not a vegetarian cookbook, vegetables play the starring role throughout.

With your rice pudding made, you are ready for the holidays. Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Robbie Lobell Mixing Bowl

I have a crazy,
crazy love of things.
I like pliers,
and scissors.
I love
and bowls­ –

“Ode to Common Things”
By Pablo Neruda

If you spend any amount of time poking around this site, you will come across a handsome, sturdy ceramic bowl made by the supremely talented Robbie Lobell. After reading Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand [2003] I began—and now prefer—mixing pasta dough ingredients in a bowl instead of on a wooden board. I started out using a blue Emile Henry bowl, but I worried that its rim might break off in my hand while pulling together a hard dough. This concern put me on the hunt for a suitable mixing bowl. It couldn’t be too deep and it needed to be really beefy.

Although my recollection isn’t perfect, I think I first learned about Robbie’s work while going through some links on the website of another supremely talented potter, Ayumi Horie. I owned one of Robbie’s lasagna pots, which possess all of the qualities that I wanted in a mixing bowl: simple, solid and functional.

After a conversation, Robbie created the perfect bowl for my needs. It’s a workhorse that I use each time I make pasta and whenever I bake. If you are looking for beautiful, rugged, reasonably-priced ceramic ware, I recommend looking at Robbie’s work.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Best Cookbooks of 2012

It’s time to look back over 2012 and share my picks for the five best cookbooks of the year. As with 2011 (here), my list contains a mix of books published in England and the United States. So, without any further ado, and in alphabetical order, I present the five best cookbooks of 2012.

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Edible Selby by Todd Selby. Abrams.

Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop. Bloomsbury Publishing.

SPQR by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino with Kate Leahy. Ten Speed Press.

You’re All Invited by Margot Henderson. Fig Tree / Penguin Books

So why these books?

The Art of Fermentation passionately examines fermented foods and beverages (e.g., pickles, meads, beers, wines, breads, and cheeses). Katz’s book inspired me to look beyond vinegar-based pickles and to explore a broad range of fermented vegetables. As I write, I have a jar of lacto-fermented okra in the refrigerator and two jars of sauerkraut bubbling away on my kitchen worktable. In response to Katz’s infectious enthusiasm, I even purchased an authentic onggi from Adam Field Pottery to try my hand at kimchi. It’s only a matter of time before I start in on mead and rice beer…

Some might argue that Todd Selby’s Edible Selby isn’t really a cookbook at all. (What is it then? A style, travel or design book?) I get inspired every time I flip through this visually stimulating work and want to rush into the kitchen and cook something. (Isn’t that what a good cookbook should do?) Does it contain recipes? Well…yes, some. But I don’t think anyone will buy this book for its recipes. (In fact, some are pretty much impossible to read.) Buy this book to enjoy Selby’s incredible eye, sense of style and playful creativity. Edible Selby profiles chefs, bakers and other culinary artisans, including a slew of my food and wine favorites: Arianna Occhipinti, an outstanding young Sicilian winemaker; Russell Moore, chef at Camino in Oakland, California; Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt (here) of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. And there’s even a section on Margot Henderson (of You’re All Invited fame, below) and her husband, Fergus Henderson (here) of St. John in London. Cookbook or not, it makes my list.

In Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop focuses on Chinese home cooking and basic kitchen techniques. Her previous cookbooks, Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, present recipes from the Sichuan and Hunan Provinces, respectively. Every Grain of Rice covers home-style dishes from these and other regions across China. If you want a primer on simple and comforting Chinese food, I highly recommend this excellent book. Do try Ms. Dunlop’s recipe for Silken Tofu with Pickled Mustard Greens. (And yes, you can pickle your own mustard greens. It is really easy.)

As a follow up to A16, an excellent 2008 cookbook that interprets Southern Italian cuisine, SPQR presents its take on Northern Italian food. Matthew Accarrino, the chef of San Francisco’s SPQR restaurant, joins Shelley Lindgren on this new book. Working from classic Northern Italy’s food—think Ragù Bolognese from Emilia-Romagna and Sardines in Saor from the Veneto—Accarrino offers his refined, modern (yet respectful) interpretation of traditional dishes using local ingredients. Lindgren expertly covers the wines of Northern Italy. As a subscriber to SPQR’s wine club, I can personally attest to her incredible taste. SPQR’s pasta dough recipes deserve special recognition.

Last but not least, You’re All Invited takes The Grand Prize as my favorite cookbook of 2012. This delightful book features recipes from Margot Henderson’s work as a caterer for Arnold & Henderson and restaurateur at London’s Rochelle Canteen. The book is subtitled “Margot’s Recipes for Entertaining” and who could ask for a more gracious host. I want to cook everything in this brilliant work. I keep coming back to a couple of recipes in particular: Bacon and Egg Pie, which she describes as “an old school pie from New Zealand”; and Sausages and Parsley Liquor, a braise of naked (i.e., peeled) sausages served with mashed potatoes. Need to serve 4, 10, 20 or 30? Not a problem! Ms. Henderson has graciously scaled many of the recipes in her book. Perhaps the before and after photographs that grace the front and back of the book’s slipcover encapsulate the spirit of this collection: comfortably gracious and charmingly playful. Buy this cookbook!

If you decide to add any of the above books to your collection or to give them to friends or family during these holidays, please do consider buying your copies from a friendly, independent bookseller. If we don’t support them, they might just disappear! And where would we be then?!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Bigoli Revisited

Since my first post on making fresh bigoli (here), I’ve expanded my collection of bigoli dough recipes. These recipes come from both classic Italian cookbooks (such as Ada Boni’s Italian Regional Cooking [1969] and Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli on Pasta [1988]) and from new cookbooks (such as The Italian Academy of Cuisine’s La Cucina – The Regional Cooking of Italy [2009] and Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta [2010]). Still, recipes for fresh bigoli remain rare in English-language cookbooks. My hope is that as the cooking public’s interest in Italian regional cuisine, especially pasta, continues to climb, and as the Internet makes the previously hard-to-find torchio pasta press readily available (here), we will see more recipes for fresh bigoli in new cookbooks.

And why not? Making fresh bigoli offers a number of advantages over buying dried bigoli—if you can find it—or using dry, whole-wheat spaghetti. Fresh bigoli has a firm yet chewy texture missing from dried pasta. Making bigoli also gives you complete control over how your pasta tastes. 

Given that variations abound in regional Italian cooking, it’s hardly surprising that the bigoli recipes I’ve collected contain a broad range of flour options. Ada Boni’s recipe for fresh bigoli in her Italian Regional Cooking calls exclusively for “all-purpose (plain) flour”. (The Italian Academy of Cuisine’s recipe in La Cucina’s also calls for 100% all-purpose flour.) Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta describes bigoli’s ingredients as “[g]enerally whole-wheat flour made from durum wheat, but sometimes soft-wheat flour….”   Jacob Kenedy’s bigoli recipe in The Geometry of Pasta has two variations: one with 100% whole-wheat flour (for the “staunch traditionalist”) and another with whole-wheat and a little added semola.  The Italian-language La Pasta [2010] from Slow Food Editore contains seven recipes for fresh bigoli using a range of farina di frumento (wheat flour) from tipo 00 (highly refined flour) to farina integrale (ground whole-grain flour). What can you take from this? Unless you’re a “staunch traditionalist” or just a dogmatist, experiment freely and use whatever flour option tastes best to you.

I’ve tried a number of different ratios of whole-wheat to all-purpose flour to achieve a pasta that meets my taste. I hit upon the following dough recipe for bigoli because it has a distinctive yet balanced whole-wheat flavor. When processed through my Bottene torchio the dough transforms into a rough-textured noodle characteristic of pasta extruded from a bronze die. The following recipe serves 2.
  • 125 grams Caputo tipo 00 flour
  • 75 grams Giustos organic whole-wheat flour, fine
  • 2 large eggs [approximately 120 grams]

1. Weigh out the flour, mix them together and sift the flour blend into a heavy mixing bowl.

2. Make a well in the flour and add the eggs. Beat the eggs with a fork and incorporate them into the flour with the fork until a crumbly mixture forms. Clean the dough off your fork and add it to the bowl.

3. Holding the bowl with one hand, reach into the bowl with your other hand and continue to mix the dough by hand. The goal is to incorporate all of the flour in the bowl into a rough dough that holds together. (If this mixture is too dry and will not come together, add a quick spritz or two of water from a spray bottle.)

4. Turn your dough onto a clean work surface. Wash your hands to remove any dough before kneading.

5. Begin to knead the dough ball by forcefully pushing it down and away from you with your palm’s heel. Fold the dough back over itself toward you. Slightly turn the dough counterclockwise, and knead again. Knead until the dough becomes quite firm (generally between 10 to 12 minutes). The dough should weigh approximately 300 grams.

6. Wrap the dough in plastic. Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

7. Attach your torchio to a work surface and insert your bigoli die. Unwrap the dough and lightly dust it with flour. Roll the dough into a thick cylinder and slide this into the torchio’s chamber. Insert the torchio’s piston into the machine’s chamber and turn the torchio’s handle until the pasta extrudes from the die. Cut to your desired length—I aim for 12 inches—and dust the cut pasta in a bowl containing flour to prevent sticking. Place the floured bigoli on a dishtowel. Continue turning the torchio handle and cutting until the dough runs out.

To cook the pasta bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the fresh bigoli, stir the pasta and when the water returns to the boil, cook for approximately 3 minutes. Taste to see if the pasta is ready. If so, drain and add the bigoli to your ready sauce and continue to cook for a minute or two so the pasta and sauce can marry.

And what sauce should you have ready? That’s entirely up to your taste. Most bigoli dishes in English-language cookbooks serve the pasta in either a duck (in some form: broth, meat and/or giblets) or a salted anchovy sauce. Oretta Zanini De Vita writes that in Padova bigoli is traditionally served with chicken giblets. The Italian-language La Pasta from Slow Food Editore pairs bigoli with regional sauces that feature: brined lake bleak; salted sardines; uncured freshwater sardines; goose; duck; and a ragù made with a pork mixture used to stuff a salumi.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


This is the third post in an ongoing series on Armenian food. I previously shared recipes for cherog, an Easter yeast bread, and for rice pilaf. Next up, a recipe for an Armenian lamb and green bean stew, or geragoor, from my paternal grandmother.

I grew up eating this dish at my grandparent’s house. Whether served alone as a weekday supper or as part of a more elaborate celebratory meal, the basic ingredients remained the same: lamb, a featured vegetable (usually green beans), onions and tomatoes. Growing up I thought this dish was exclusively Armenian; it is not. Many Mediterranean and Near Eastern countries have similar rustic lamb and vegetable stews with an onion and tomato base. Penelope Casas’s The Food & Wine of Spain [1983] has a recipe for Cordero al Chilindrón that pairs red peppers with lamb, onions and tomatoes. Richard Olney’s Provence, The Beautiful Cookbook [1993] shares a French version of this dish called Ragoût D’Agneau Aux Artichauts that contains artichokes. Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens [1998] includes a Tunisian variation that features cactus pads. Each version is a simply seasoned combination of a limited number of regional ingredients.

More often than not my grandmother made her geragoor with green beans. If she didn’t like her green grocer’s bean selection she’d opt for the vegetable that looked the best: leeks, squash or, my favorite, okra (bamia in Armenian). On a rare occasion she used potatoes in place of vegetables; when she did she seasoned the geragoor with dried purple basil.

Although the stew’s vegetables might vary, its meat does not: my grandmother used lamb shoulder. I’ve tried the dish with leg of lamb and didn’t like the results; I think the leg is too lean for this dish. Although I sometimes cut cubes from a boneless shoulder, typically I use lamb shoulder blade chops cut widthwise into thirds. This recipe serves 4.
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 lamb shoulder blade chops, each chop cut widthwise into thirds by your butcher, trimmed of excess fat with bones retained
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved then sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 pound green beans, topped and cut in half
  • 4 medium tomatoes (approximately 1 pound), peeled and chopped reserving juice
  • Water as needed

Heat oil in a heavy 5½-quart casserole over medium-high heat. Add lamb and brown meat. Add the sliced onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the onions soften. Add green beans and chopped tomatoes with their juice. Add a little water as necessary, but keep in mind that the onions, beans and tomatoes will give up liquids to form a sauce. After the stew comes to a simmer, cover the casserole and reduce heat to low. Simmer the stew for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Some notes and thoughts. If using bone-in shoulder blade chops, be mindful that small (and often sharp) pieces of bone may turn up in the finished dish. Whenever I serve this dish I emphatically warn: “Look out for bones!”

When I have the time, I’ll salt the lamb the night before (using about 2 teaspoons of medium-grained sea salt) and leave the meat uncovered on a cooling rack inside the refrigerator. This step helps the lamb to brown and deepens the meat’s flavor. Make sure to cut back on the amount of salt when seasoning the stew to account for the well-salted meat.

Don’t forgo this dish if tomatoes are not in season; good-quality canned tomatoes work nicely. The stew tastes different, but still extraordinarily good.

I began this series on Armenian food to memorialize certain family dishes that, through the passage of time, risked fading away. Ironically, often the simplest fare, like this geragoor, faces the greatest risk of being lost; past generations often fail to memorialize the simplest recipes. I can hear my grandmother now: “Why write it down, janig? It’s so simple?” Yes, it is simple. But wonderfully special in its simplicity and its ability to comfort, it’s a dish worth memorializing and saving.