Monday, December 16, 2013

Bourbon Milk Punch

Let’s finish off the year with a glass full of holiday cheer. I wrote (here) that 2013 offered a score of outstanding cookbooks. A number of my favorites preached the gospel of new Southern cooking, including Edward Lee’s Smoke & Pickles and John Currence’s Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. Buy both of these books, and you get a double helping of pickles.

You will also get some outstanding cocktail recipes, especially for bourbon fans. Lee serves up Jalapeño-Spiked Bourbon Julep, Bourbon Sweet Tea, The Rebel Yell and The New-Fashioned. Currence likes his brown water as well; he shares recipes for New Old-Fashioned, Spiced Cider and, the star of this post, Bourbon Milk Punch.

Currence writes “[u]nbeknownst to most folks, Bourbon Milk Punch (or Brandy Milk Punch, depending on who’s making it) is the choice beverage of the gentlemen who work the floats on Mardi Gras day on St. Charles Avenue and ply the masses with plastic beads and aluminum doubloons.” While often served during Mardi Gras, Milk Punch is no stranger to Christmas gatherings. So let’s make some! Currence’s recipe serves 1.

4 ounces whole milk
2 tablespoons half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2½ ounces Buffalo Trace bourbon
4 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish

Pour the milk, half-and-half, vanilla, and bourbon over cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Spoon in the sugar, and shake vigorously. Pour into a large old-fashioned glass, sprinkle nutmeg over the top, and serve.

As 2013 comes to a close, I wish happiness and good health to all in the New Year!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Best Cookbooks of 2013

What a year for cookbooks! I struggled to whittle my favorites down to a list of just five books. My Best of 2013 contains both eagerly awaited offerings and serendipitous discoveries. In alphabetical order, I offer up my choices for the top five cookbooks of the year.

I Love New York: Ingredients and recipes by David Humm and Will Guidara. Ten Speed Press.

Ivan Ramen: Love, obsession, and recipes from Toyko’s most unlikely noodle joint by Ivan Orkin. Ten Speed Press.

Pizza: Seasonal recipes from Rome’s legendary Pizzarium by Gabriele Bonci with Elisia Menduni; translated by Natalie Danford. Rizzoli International Publications.

Roberta’s Cookbook by Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini and Katherine Wheelock. Clarkson Potter/Publications.

Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian way by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

So, why did I pick these books?

In I Love New York, Humm and Guidara explore the idea of a regional New York cuisine by showcasing the state’s farmers, fishermen, ranchers and craft food purveyors. The authors organize their book alphabetically by ingredient with each foodstuff section featuring a different New York State food artisan and dishes built around the ingredient. Fabulous recipes beautifully presented make this outstanding book from the chef and general manager of Eleven Madison Park one of the best cookbooks of recent memory.

For years I searched for a decent ramen recipe, especially information—any information—on making fresh ramen noodles. Nothing!  Then came David Chang’s Momofuku [2009], the first cookbook I found that seriously explores the different components that make up a great bowl of ramen. Now we have a worthy ramen-centric successor to Momofuku, Orkin’s Ivan Ramen. Talk about an amazing (and, as the book’s subtitle states, unlikely) story: New York-born kid travels to Japan and, long story short, opens up a wildly successful ramen shop by applying his stateside-taught culinary skills to his beloved Japanese noodle soup. And talk about generous! I now quote from page 96 of Ivan Ramen: “So this book includes the entire recipe for Ivan Ramen shio ramen, exactly as it’s made at the shop in Rokakoen.” What a rarity: a ramen chef that shares his techniques and secrets with all! But perhaps the best part of Ivan Ramen lies in Orkin’s story of loss and purpose. Orkin has penned a great read, whether you love noodles or not.

What Ivan Ramen is to shio ramen, Pizza by Gabriele Bonci is to Roman-style pizza. Here’s another example of a successful, micro-focused chef sharing his beloved craft. Bonci classically trained as an Italian chef, but decided to apply his cooking skills to his passion, baking. Bonci makes Roman-style pizzas—think long, rectangular pies—that he slices up and sells out of his tiny pizzeria in Rome. Although Neapolitan-style pizza needs a very hot oven temperature that is difficult to approximate at home, Bonci’s Roman-style pizza works great in a home oven set to 475°F. If you buy Bonci’s book, make sure you watch Elizabeth Minchilli’s YouTube video entitled Pizza Dough with Bonci – January 20, 2011 Rome (here). This video makes the process of shaping Roman-style pizza clear and easy.

And speaking of pizza, the folks behind Roberta’s in Brooklyn wanted to open a small pizza place, but they had almost zero money and the same amount of restaurant experience. How can you not love a book that contains the following sentence: “We arrived in the northern Italian town of Fossano early on a summer afternoon, a journey we’d made because we were about to open a pizzeria and—small detail—we’d never actually made pizza before.” All’s well that ends well: Roberta’s the restaurant succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and now we have the playful Roberta’s Cookbook. The book covers more than just pizza; you’ll find an array of simple recipes—most feel Italian in spirit—that focus on dishes that contain only a few carefully chosen ingredients. Highly recommended.

Last, and by no means least, I encourage everyone to buy Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant’s outstanding Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian way. I wrote about this cookbook last month (here). Sauces & Shapes was my most eagerly anticipated 2013 cookbook, and it lived up to my high expectations. It gets my vote as the best Italian cookbook of the year.

Here’s hoping that 2014 turns out as many excellent cookbooks as 2013!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sagne e lenticchie

Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant have collaborated on an outstanding new book entitled Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way [2013]. Zanini De Vita’s previous two US publications, the celebrated Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] and Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds – Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio [2013], both translated into English by Fant, document Italian culinary traditions. Although one can certainly cook from the Encyclopedia of Pasta (e.g., here and here), and while Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds includes recipes, neither work is a traditional cookbook. Happily and at last, Zanini De Vita has penned a bona fide English-language cookbook, but one with the focus of a passionate Italian food historian and expert. If you enjoy learning about and cooking Italian food, especially pasta, then I highly recommend this excellent book.

In Sauces & Shapes’ Introduction, Fant asks the question “What is in this Book?” The answer lies in the book’s subtitle: Pasta the Italian Way. Zanini De Vita and Fant give “advice for: cooking, serving and eating pasta; stocking a pantry and choosing ingredients; and generally approaching pasta as much like an Italian as anyone outside Italy can.” To this end, the authors include pasta do’s and don’ts: do add cheese to pasta before adding sauce (unless their recipe instructs otherwise); don’t use a fork and spoon to twirl and eat pasta (unless eating capelli d’angelo served in soup); and do serve tortellini in broth (“That is not a suggestion; it’s an order.”). This goodhearted and wry counsel isn’t born from a persnickety mindset, but rather comes from a palpable desire to share authentic Italian cooking.

I have read through the book a couple of times now and have cooked a number of dishes. The recipes come from Zanini De Vita’s research and treasure trove of over 2,200 recipes. Sauces & Shapes includes classics such as Sugo alla marinara; Puttanesca; Amatriciana; and Carbonara. The book also presents more unique offerings such as Boscaiola made with canned tuna and mushrooms; Ragù con le spuntature, a pork rib sauce that includes horseradish; and an agnolotti filled with broccoli rabe and served in a clam sauce.

One of my favorite dishes from the book is a simple soup, Sagne e lenticchie (Lentils and noodles). The recipe’s introduction offers a primer on where the best lentils grow in Italy. Luckily, the Internet makes sourcing these beautiful Italian lentils fairly easy. The soup—more dense than liquid—tastes comforting and utterly delicious. Sauces & Shapes’ version uses fresh pasta that, in my opinion, transforms this classic dish from very good to great.

For the soup:

1 pound (450 grams) lentils, washed and picked over
1 bay leaf
at least 1½ level teaspoons salt (kosher)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups (550 grams) tomato puree
1 small piece dried chile

Before serving:

8 ounces (225 grams) or less pasta
2 tablespoons, or more, best-quality extra virgin olive oil for finishing

Put the lentils in a 4-quart (4-liter) pot, preferably terracotta, with 6 cups (1.5 liters) water and the bay leaf. Add 1 level teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, then cook, covered, over low heat until tender. The cooling time can range from 20 minutes (for the best-quality tiny Italian lentils) to about 45 minutes, so keep your eye on them and check often. They should be tender but not mushy.

Keep a supply of boiling hot lightly salted water available on the stove and add it by the ladleful in the unlikely event your lentils begin to look dry. You can also use the water to make the soup more liquid.

Put the oil in a saucepan and add the onion and garlic. Sauté gently over low heat until transparent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree, the chile, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce is visibly reduced and the oil comes to the surface. Add this sauce to the lentils. You should have about 8 cups total. Taste for salt.

Make ahead note: At this point, the process can be interrupted and the lentils kept until you are ready to complete the dish. The lentils freeze very well, too. They are best reheated in a double boiler.

When you are ready to continue, heat the lentils gently (if they are not already hot), add 2 cups (400 milliliters) lightly salted hot water, stir in the pasta, cover the pot, and cook over low heat until the pasta is al dente, which may be very quick.

Discard the bay leaf, stir in the oil, and let the soup rest for a few minutes before serving. It is also excellent served at room temperature.

Note: Lentils continue to absorb water like a sponge long after they’ve finished cooking. In this case, you can certainly add water before reheating, but you will need to taste for salt. You can also just let them absorb as much as they want and eat the dish with a fork.

Sauces & Shapes includes a recipe for fresh pasta all’uovo (egg dough): 450 grams tipo 00 flour to 5 medium or large eggs, or 4 extra-large or jumbo eggs. It also includes a detailed description on how to hand-roll and machine-roll fresh pasta.

To my mind, Sauces & Shapes’ section on Basic Dough is reason enough to buy this book. The introduction to the pasta all’uovo recipe begins: “As important as it is to develop feel and instinct when making dough, there is a metric formula for making pasta all’uovo.” Zanini De Vita presents what any Bolognesi no doubt instinctively knows at birth: mix 100 grams of 00 flour with an egg (i.e., a medium egg weighing near 50 grams without its shell) per serving. I use this 2:1 ratio all the time as my general rule of thumb when making fresh egg pasta. Certainly the type and blend of flour and level of workplace humidity impact dough, but it’s hard to go too far off the rails when making fresh egg pasta if you stick to 100 grams of flour to 50 grams of egg.

A final note on Sauces & Shapes: Ms. Fant writes really well. And call me a prude, but I think it refreshing to read a new cookbook that doesn’t drop an f-bomb or other colorful expletive on every other page. Fant is a wonderful writer and it’s a pleasure to read her carefully crafted text. Let’s hope that Zanini De Vita and Fant have another book or two (or three) in the works.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Spinach Soup

When I started writing A Serious Bunburyist, I penciled out a list of five favorite recipes that I wanted to cover: Fergus Henderson’s Beetroot, Red Onion, Red Cabbage, CrèmeFraîche and Chervil Salad; Richard Olney’s Potato and Leek Soup; and Paul Bertolli’s Cauliflower Soup. Another Bertolli soup made this short list, a Spinach Soup from his Chez Panisse Cooking [1988] with Alice Waters.

With autumn here—perhaps the best growing season for spinach, along with spring—it seems like the perfect time to finally enjoy this extraordinary soup. Bertolli writes “[t]his is one of the simplest and most economical soups I know of, and it takes very little time to make.” If you are quick with a knife, this soup goes from cutting board to table in 30 minutes. And nothing is lost to speed. To my taste, Bertolli’s Spinach Soup ranks as one of the most delicious soups in my entire cookbook collection. As a starter, Bertolli’s recipe serves 8.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5¼ cups water
1 large carrot (4 ounces), diced
1 stalk of celery (2½ ounces), diced
1 medium yellow onion (6 ounces), diced
3 bunches of spinach (1 pound, 2 ounces), de-stemmed, washed and drained
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a wide stainless-steel pot (at least 5-quart capacity). Add ¾ cup water and the carrot, celery, and onion. Cook at a low simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Add the remaining 4½ cups water and bring to a boil. Add the spinach and cook over high heat for 1 minute, stirring until all of the spinach is well wilted. Do not cover the pot: volatile acids, which are released when the vegetable is heated, will condense on the lid, fall back into the pot, and cause discoloration. Purée the entire mixture thoroughly in a blender, do not sieve, and transfer the soup immediately to a hot tureen. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnish as desired, and serve immediately.

As to garnishes, Bertolli suggests a few options in his introduction to the recipe. Consider adding garlic butter or crème fraîche thinned to the soup’s consistency. Better yet, he writes, serve with “grated Parmesan, small buttered garlic croutons, and extra virgin olive oil drizzled over the surface.” Personally, I think this is all gild for the lily; I serve the soup without any embellishment.

A word or two on selecting and cleaning spinach: look for perky, fresh leaves with an intense green color. A good bunch will squeak when squeezed. Bertolli prefers a smooth-leaf spinach over the heavy, crinkle-leaf varieties, such as Bloomsdale, but writes that either type works well in this soup.

Take care washing fresh spinach, which often harbors sand and dirt. After stemming, place the leaves in a very large bowl filled with cold water and mix the spinach around with your hand. Wait a minute for any sand and dirt to drift away to the bowl’s bottom.  Then gently lift out the spinach so as not to disturb the settled grit. I typically repeat this process a couple more times especially if the spinach seems particularly dirty.

Finally, my dear editor suggested that I remind you to take care when blending hot liquids. I heed the counsel of the talented and scientifically-minded Heston Blumenthal. Heston Blumenthal at home [2011] describes how to liquefy soup: “The contents of the pan need to be transferred to the jug of the blender while still warm, as they’ll liquidize more efficiently like that. That said, no matter how eager you are to get the soup done, resist the urge to pour it into a blender while it’s still piping hot. If you put a hot liquid in the jug and close the lid, the heat can cause the air pressure to build to such an extent that, when you hit the switch, the soup forces its way out. So let it cool for a few minutes, then fill the jug no more than two-thirds full. Put on the lid but remove the small inner section, hold a folded tea-towel over the top, then press the button. Leave it for long enough that the contents are fully and evenly liquidized.” 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Abbotta Pezziende

The Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] by Oretta Zanini De Vita contains 310 entries beginning with abbotta pezziende, a short, flat, rhombus-shaped pasta from Italy’s Abruzzo region. To make this shape, use a wooden rolling pin to roll out dough into a sheet of pasta. Then, after wrapping the pasta sheet around the pin, draw a knife down the pin’s length to slice the sheet into a pile of long, multi-layer strips. Cut the pile into narrow strips that measure about 4 cm/1.5-inches in width. With a bias cut, section the narrow strips into diamondesque-shaped pieces and you have abbotta pezziende.

Pictures help illustrate the process.

If you want to make a traditional version of this shape, Zanini De Vita writes that abbotta pezziende contains durum-flour, water and salt. As is the case with most traditional shapes, variations evolve overtime. I found contemporary recipes that call for equal parts durum and soft wheat flour; some of these recipes use whole eggs in place of water. I use a dough made with 100 grams Caputo tipo 00 flour, 100 grams Giusto’s Extra Fancy Durum flour, 2 medium whole eggs and a large pinch of salt. Depending upon the size of the eggs and other variations inherent in making fresh pasta (e.g., temperature, humidity, flour), you may need to add a bit of water to bring the dough together. After kneading for about 10 minutes, I wrap the dough in plastic to rest for about 30 minutes at room temperature.

Abbotta pezziende serves as a great introduction if you want to try making fresh pasta with a rolling pin because the shape is rather on the thick side (about 2mm, which is just a little thicker than a US Quarter). As for the hand rolling of the dough, I use the technique described in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking [1992]. Don’t be discouraged if your first efforts fall short of success. Hand rolling pasta takes practice, but, once mastered, becomes a thing of beauty. Case in point, take a look at Eric Wolfinger’s short film of Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water hand rolling pasta. The Ten Speed Press will publish their yet to be titled cookbook in the fall of 2014. Mark your calendar! (Update: Ten Speed published Flour + Water Pasta in September 2014.)

The one common thread you find when researching abbotta pezziende is its sauce: almost every source suggests dressing the pasta in a simple, soupy tomato sauce flavored with garlic, basil and pecorino cheese. I found variants that add chickpeas, lentils, fava beans and even asparagus. Guanciale occasionally shows up as an ingredient, too.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Spaghetti Quadri

After buying my Bottene torchio pasta press from Emiliomiti [here], I purchased a bronze die to make spaghetti quadri, a thin square noodle meant to resemble maccheroni alla chitarra, the traditional pasta of Abruzzo. To make authentic maccheroni alla chitarra, you roll a thick-ish sheet of egg pasta over closely spaced wires strung length-wise across a rectangular wooden box called a guitar (chitarra). In Italy Dish by Dish [2011], Monica Sartoni Cesari writes that maccheroni alla chitarra “is a relatively new shape—well, for Italy. It dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Before the invention of the chitarra,…the same shape was made by cutting the pasta with a shoemaker’s hammer (rintrocilo).”

What a spaghetti quadri die lacks in character when compared to a shoemaker’s hammer or a zither-like box, it makes up in efficiency: attach bronze die to torchio and add dough; insert and screw down piston; harvest square spaghetti.  Pretty simple in concept, but the key to success lies in the dough. Before settling on the recipe, below, I had a good number of misses with this die. Looking back on my notes, I think the problems stemmed from my (1) flour blend, and (2) liquid-to-flour ratio. (Not much left to get wrong, I’d say.…) I finally succeeded after pushing the dough closer to the sandy consistency of a machine-extruded dough. After hydrating, this resulted in a very dry and hard dough that produced a pasta with a firm bite. Here’s the recipe that I use to make spaghetti quadri.

125 grams Giusto’s Extra Fancy Durum flour
125 grams Central Milling 00 Pizza flour
2 grams kosher salt
125 grams egg mixture (2 whole medium eggs plus 1 medium egg yolk. If the eggs/yolk weigh less than 125 grams, add water to make up difference; if the eggs/yolk weighs more, remove the overage.)

1. In a stand mixer fitted with its paddle attachment, mix together the flours and salt. In a glass, beat the egg mixture.

2. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the egg mixture into the mixing bowl. Mix the dough for about 2 minutes. The dough should be crumbly, but still slightly damp and should hold together if tightly squeezed.

3. 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. Place the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten the dough into a disc. If the dough crumbles a bit, don’t worry: tightly wrap the dough with the plastic wrap so that it holds its shape. As the dough rests, it will hydrate and come together. Leave the dough to rest at room temperature for 1 hour.

4. Attach the torchio to a work surface and insert the spaghetti quadri 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—this will take some effort—until the pasta extrudes from the die. Cut the spaghetti quadri into approximately 12-inch long pieces, lightly dust with flour and place on a baking tray covered with semolina. Continue turning and cutting until the dough runs out. You will have enough pasta to serve 4 as a starter or 3 as a main course.

To cook the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the fresh spaghetti quadri, stir the pasta and when the water returns to the boil, cook for approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Taste to determine if the pasta is ready. If so, drain and add the pasta to your ready sauce, mix the two together and cook the pasta and sauce for 1 to 2 minutes.

Don’t be surprised if nearly every regional Italian cookbook you consult suggests serving this pasta shape with a lamb and pepper ragù.  It’s a classic pairing worth trying. This pasta also tastes delicious with a simple light tomato sauce spiked with hot pepper.