eggs, Italian, Pasta, Random Thoughts

Adaptation.

Despite what many people think, watching shows about cooking, even great shows about famous chefs, isn’t the same as cooking or knowing how to cook. Early this year, up in Philadelphia, my husband and I stood outside the Ritz-Carlton chatting with one of the valets while waiting for our car. He told us about watching the cooking shows – Top Chef, The Great Food Truck Race – and laughed that he used to tell Chef Jennifer Carroll, then-just departed chef de cuisine of 10 Arts and onetime Top Chef competitor, that he felt like almost a pro himself after watching the shows, that it was practically the same. “No, it isn’t,” I replied. “That’s exactly what Jen used to say,” he told me, getting my door.

It’s true. You can’t learn to cook just by watching TV, and even our Ritz-Carlton valet conceded that he mostly had heard of things like shiso but had no idea how they tasted, and knew that risotto is supposed to be runny, not stiff, but couldn’t make it himself. Top Chef is great, but you can’t learn to cook by watching it. If you choose the right show, though, you can actually learn some useful things from TV, like how it looks to dice an onion like a pro, or sear a piece of meat, or make a sugar cage. In case you haven’t had the pleasure, the Great Chefs television series back in the 80s and 90s on PBS featured chefs in their restaurant kitchens, cooking at their stations as though they were talking you through the dish just before service. There was no faux-home kitchen, no excruciating banter, no mugging for the camera, no corny catch-phrases. No BAM, just great technique and superb cooking. They did have some appallingly and catchy theme tunes – “Great chefs, great cities, great food – lovingly prepared by the best” – and the most important chefs in America at the time, both established and up-and-coming. I never missed an episode if I could help it. This was the age of the VCR, and I taped episodes to watch after work, rewinding to watch a chef brunoise a carrot, peel and concasse a tomato, mount butter into a sauce, sear a pork chop before finishing in the oven, and then trying the same from my outdated Minneapolis kitchen.

The enduring lesson of Great Chefs is that fundamentals are essential to good cooking. You can’t adapt a classic dish to personalize it, or make it modern in a way that makes sense, without good technique. Any one of the chefs featured on the series could peel and turn a bushel of turnips in the time it takes most people to dice a five pound bag of potatoes. I don’t golf – never took to it – but in cooking, as in golf, practice pays off. Once you know what you’re doing, you can turn to old favorites and give them your own flair.

Linguine, “guanciale” belly, fried poached egg

I learned about New Orleans by watching Great Chefs long before I ever had the opportunity to visit the city. PBS was a superb tour guide, taking viewers through the kitchens at Commander’s, Brennan’s, La Provence, and the other temples to gastronomy of the day. Years later, in the early 2000s, I traveled regularly to New Orleans on business and dined at the likes of Acme and Herbsaint, Central Grocery and Bayona, banh mí joints in the afternoon, August or Cochon at night. This last September, I took my husband for his first visit, during an engagement to speak at a seminar on food and the law hosted by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

On our last night in the city, we dined at my favorite NOLA restaurant, Herbsaint. The same dish drew both his eyes and mine: “Housemade spaghetti with guanciale and fried poached egg.” We surmised this was an adaptation of spaghetti alla carbonara, and although that was clearly its inspiration, the kitchen had taken it a few steps further. The most interesting quality of the dish, to me, was that it tasted a little like sour cream and chive potato chips – in a good way – but it also seemed that the eggs are coated in ordinary breadcrumbs, not, say, potato chip dust. It seemed to me that the pasta sauce might not be the simple egg and cheese mixture of the classic carbonara, but a cream sauce incorporating garlic, which combined with the fried egg for the chive/chip taste.

I generally don’t like to imitate restaurant dishes, but this one was too good to pass up. When we returned home, I cured some pork belly in the manner of guanciale since I didn’t want to wait to order pork jowls. After about a week of curing, I fried the belly into small crisp cubes, made a simple garlic parmesan cream, and poached a few eggs before coating in panko and frying. We don’t have a pasta extruder, essential for producing housemade durum wheat pasta, and frankly homemade dried pasta usually isn’t as good as the kind you buy in the store, so I just used regular bronze die-extruded linguine from Montebello. The resulting dish is creamy, salty, crisp, and savory, reminiscent of the classic carbonara, but adapted to a modern palate.

With the exception of the pork-curing step, you can execute this dish from start to finish in the time it takes to bring the water to a boil and cook the pasta – in other words, about 25 minutes. To be on the safe side, if you are not accustomed to handling poached eggs, I recommend you make a few extra in case you overcook, or the egg falls apart, or you inadvertently break the yolk while breading or removing from the frying oil. All are possibilities. Eat the mistakes on toast or atop grits, with cheese.

1 c heavy cream
12 cloves garlic
1 egg yolk
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper

4 oz guanciale or unsmoked bacon

12 oz dried linguine

4 eggs
1/2 c AP flour
1 egg, beaten with 1 tbsp water
1 c panko
chives
black truffle salt

Combine the cream, peeled garlic cloves, and cheese in a saucepot and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes and then transfer to a vitaprep or blender. Blitz until smooth, adding the egg yolk halfway through (if using a lower powered blender, push through a chinois). Set aside.

Garlic-parmesan cream.

Cut the guanciale, bacon, or what have you into batons. Fry in a hot pan until crisp and golden; drain and set aside the crisped batons. [Note: a recipe for guanciale follows]

Pork belly cured in the manner of guanciale.

Poach the eggs in simmering water. Remove carefully with a slotted/perf spoon and slip into an ice water bath. Prepare a clean kitchen towel.

Poaching eggs.

Cooling eggs in ice water bath

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add your pasta. Meanwhile, pour oil about 1″ deep in a small shallow pan, and bring to 350F. Set up a three part breading station. As your pasta cooks, dry the eggs on the clean towel and then bread the eggs (use your hands, not a spoon or tongs as they will be delicate). Fry on both sides. This step only takes a minute or so. Drain on paper towels set over a rack.

Fried poached egg.

Retherm the garlic parmesan cream and drain the pasta. Toss the pasta and reserved guanciale batons in the cream, season with truffle salt, divide among four plates, and top each with minced chive and the fried poached egg.

Pork belly in the style of guanciale

Pork jowl can be hard to find, although a good butcher can get it to you. Rather than go out of your way, try curing pork belly in the manner of guanciale. Although the result will be fattier and less meaty, you can substitute it for guanciale in recipes that call for it, like carbonara, or amatriciana. Not traditional, but close enough.

This is a relatively quick and low-maintenance process that does not involve a subsequent air-drying process.

2 lb pork belly, skin removed
100g kosher salt
50g granulated sugar
5g TCM/pink salt
5g juniper berries
15g black peppercorn
8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
6 branches thyme

Crack the juniper and peppercorns coarsely. Combine the dry ingredients. Coat the belly well in the cure.

Dry cure.

Coated in cure.

Place the coated belly in a plastic sealing bag with the crushed garlic and thyme, double bag (to avoid leakage), and refrigerate for about 7-10 days. Turn the bag over once a day to distribute the cure and the expelled liquid.

Remove from the cure and rinse. At this point you may firm up the belly by placing on a rack in a 180F oven for about 2 hours, or simply refrigerate or freeze for immediate use. If refrigerated, use or freeze within a week.

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Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Italian

An integral component.

When you hear the words “brown rice,” do you glance anxiously over your shoulder, bracing for the oncoming thud of so many Earth Shoes and the stench of patchouli? You’re not alone. I happen to like brown rice, but the sad fact is that it usually isn’t celebrated for its nutty flavor and firm texture. Instead, it’s most often touted as the more healthful alternative to white rice, appearing as a bland, steaming beige pile beside equally dull crowns of unseasoned broccoli and a broiled salmon fillet. Yawn – and that’s a shame, because brown rice can contribute flavor and texture that polished white rice can’t.

Recently, a Facebook acquaintance asked if I’d be interested in participating in a cooking challenge sponsored by Marx Foods. I contacted Marx Foods and received a kilo of organic riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice – with instructions to cook through a “gauntlet” of dishes. This is the first, a savory risotto. (The next two, sweet risotto and cook’s choice, depend on gaining enough votes in the first round to advance. So please vote! Follow this link to vote before June 1!)

If you’ve ever wanted to work with brown rice but have been brought up short by the differences from white rice in cooking time and water content, I encourage you to try the integrale when making risotto. Ordinarily, the challenge when making risotto is stopping short of overcooking, at which point the rice becomes heavy and mushy. In addition, the cooked risotto will continue to absorb any residual liquid, changing quickly from a slightly soupy dish to a gummy, starchy lump. Using an unpolished rice still bearing its bran, however, slows the pace at which the rice absorbs liquid. Not only does this make it easier to tell when the rice is approaching the ideal texture – cooked through and not hard, but retaining a firm bite – but the fully cooked risotto will not absorb residual liquid as quickly, maintaining its soupy texture. What’s more, the open-pot cooking of risotto relieves you of any guesswork and worry about under- or overcooking associated with steaming. You simply add as much simmering liquid, bit by bit, as it takes to cook the rice.

The keys to a really flavorful risotto are to toast the rice grains well in oil before adding any liquid (a process called tostatura), to use a really flavorful stock (I happened to have plenty of duck stock at home, but any good stock will work well), and to season with salt while cooking rather than waiting until the end. That way, each grain of rice is seasoned through to its core.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast

To complement the nutty, earthy flavor of the integrale, I added savoy cabbage to the risotto near the end of cooking, and served with a simply seared duck breast, with lots of herbs on the finish to brighten the dish. The resulting dish was faintly reminiscent of that broccoli-cheddar rice we all ate as kids – savoy and broccoli both being brassicas – but in a good way, not a fake out-of-a-box way.

1 large duck breast (magret), about 500g (just over a pound)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and small dice (1/4″)
1 medium leek, white and light green only, washed well and small dice (1/4″)
1/2 medium head savoy cabbage, finely chopped
1 tbsp duck fat or unsalted butter
250g integrale rice (about 1 2/3 c)
250 ml dry white wine (a little more than 1 c)
1.4 l strong duck or chicken stock (about 6 c)
1 dried or 2 fresh bay leaves
4 stalks fresh thyme
chives
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
about 1/2 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper

About 45 minutes before service, bring the stock to a simmer and maintain at a bare simmer. Cover if necessary to prevent evaporation.

Mise en place.

Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp duck fat or butter. Add the onion and leeks, season lightly with salt, and sweat until tender. It is not necessary to brown the vegetables.

Leeks and onion.

Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil and becoming somewhat chalky-looking, about 5 minutes (tostatura).

Tostatura.

Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Add some salt – perhaps 1/2 tsp – and the simmering duck stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes and the rice should release starch into the stock.

Releasing starch into stock.

After about 30 minutes, while the rice is still firm but nearly tender enough to the bite, add the savoy cabbage and stir well to continue cooking, adding the remaining stock. Taste for salt at this point and season lightly if more is necessary. The rice takes about 30-35 minutes to cook and, when properly cooked should still be firm as opposed to mushy, but must not be hard in the center of each grain.

Adding savoy,

As soon as the rice is cooked, remove from the heat and stir in 4 tbsp cold butter and the Parmigiano. Beat well to coat with the butter; add 1 tbsp water if necessary to loosen. Your goal is to form an emulsion between the residual liquid in the pan and the butter, slightly thickened and stabilized by the starch (mantecatura). Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and pepper to taste.

Plate the risotto and add the sliced duck (see below). Garnish with herbs. Serves six as primi or as a component with additional vegetables or meat.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast.

Duck breast

This duck breast was cooked at 140F/60C, but the duck may be cooked conventionally on the stovetop and/or finished in a warm oven.

If cooking sous vide: Vacuum pack the duck breast with 2 sprigs of thyme on the meat side. Place in a water bath with an immersion circulator set to 140F/60C for between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove and dry on paper towels.

Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin (you should encounter virtually no resistance when attempting to score the fat). Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and sear the meat side for about 15 seconds. Slice.

140F duck breast.

Searing duck breast.

If you prefer to cook conventionally: Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin. Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and reduce the heat. Cook until just shy of medium rare; remove to a board and rest for about 5 minutes. Slice.

*Thanks to Marx Foods for the integrale!

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Italian, Pasta, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

No bones about it.

A surprising percentage of the public apparently is afraid of bones, skin, fat, and any other part of the meat that betrays its living origins. I’ve encountered people who refuse to eat chicken on the bone, fish on the bone, shrimp with the shells, not to mention the heads. It’s a shame, because any cut of meat that includes the bone gets a flavor bonus, as well as a nice textural boost from the collagen in the bone and in the meat near the bone.

Strangely, one very popular exception to the boneless chicken ranch approach to meat eating is the pork spare rib. Maybe it’s because the rib is pretty user-friendly even though the bone figures prominently, or perhaps it’s on account of that – the bone serves as a built-in utensil, and the meat pretty much falls away without any resistance, so you don’t have to get as up close and personal as with a chicken leg or a whole fish. I’ve been racking (ha) my brains trying to remember the first time I tasted a barbecued rib, and I can’t remember when that was, so I must have been pretty small. I do remember my parents making them from time to time, and I also remember that, in the battle of the bottled barbecue sauces that raged during the Seventies, my family joined the side of Open Pit, original flavor. (My husband, I have learned, came from a family of Kraft loyalists. It’s like we’re from two different worlds here.)

The Seventies were a very sensory time – any of you old enough to remember will recall the decade’s fetish for shag rugs and chenille, Peter Max, and smelly things like fruit-scented markers, novelty shampoos, and scratch and sniff. I was crazy about all those things, sometimes to my detriment. In second grade, I became obsessed with the smell of strawberry shampoo and took to combing it into my hair every morning before school – after washing – to intensify the scent, a practice that came to an abrupt halt a few days in when my mother, appalled at how sticky and matted my hair had become, discovered that the stickiness turned to foam when washed and smelled exactly like strawberry shampoo. The next year – at the bicentennial – I became enamoured of two wall calendars, one featuring glow-in-the-dark Disney characters, and the other sporting a different thematic scratch and sniff food for each month (chili for February, pumpkin pie for November … you get the idea). When the food calendar lost its olfactory punch, I sought to make my own scratch and sniff book. My mother had given me this great cookbook of international dishes for kids called Many Hands Cooking, and I thought that dabbing a little Open Pit on every illustration of a tomato would be a great way to DIY. Witness, for example, the crimes I committed against the picture accompanying “Padstools:”

DIY scratch and sniff fail - note the stained tomatoes.

To anticipate your question, the Open Pit-impregnation method of producing scratch and sniff doesn’t work. The tomato illustrations smelled like Open Pit for about an hour, until they dried. Eventually, I found more suitable ways to express my feelings about barbecue sauce. When I started cooking, for example, one of the first dishes I learned to make was slow-roasted spareribs. Of course, back then my conception of the rib was limited to its most commonplace form – rubbed in a salt-ish spice blend and basted in Open Pit – but it felt like real cooking nonetheless.

These days, I find my favorite way to prepare and eat pork ribs is not roasted or barbecued, but braised. For some reason, although beef ribs conventionally are braised or subjected to other moist-heat cooking, pork ribs most often are given the dry heat treatment. But braising takes advantage of the bone, which provides great flavor and gelatin to the braising liquid. As you know, I’ve been working with the ibérico de bellota pork from Ibérico USA, and hate to waste any part of this rich, sweet pig. So to make full use of the bone, I like to braise the whole rack of ribs, and turn the braising liquid into a sauce.

Iberico ribs.

One of the best and simplest ways to prepare this cut of ibérico pork, not to mention conventional pork ribs, is to braise in a tomato- and stock-based sauce (tomato on its own I feel is a little too thick). When finished, remove the meat and blend the cooking medium down into a nice tomato sugo – the sweet flavor of the meat seeps into the sugo during the long cooking.

Braised Ibérico rib, tomato sugo, penne

There’s no need to be particularly precise about cooking times when it comes to this braise, and it can be cooked, chilled down, and stored for later. Whether cooking or reheating, just remember not to bring up the temperature too much; it shouldn’t boil at any time. Boiling causes the muscles to tighten up too much and will make the meat fibrous and dry-stringy. Keeping the temperature to around 180F/82C will ensure moisture and tenderness.

2 racks, about 8 ribs each, of costillas de ibérico – if you don’t have these, use pork spareribs
one medium onion, peeled and small dice
1 small leek, white only, washed well and thinly sliced (reserve green for another use)
2 medium carrots, peeled and small dice
2 stalks celery, peeled and small dice
1 c dry white wine
1 28 ounce can tomatoes, broken up by hand
6 cloves garlic confit
2 c chicken stock
bay leaf
6 branches thyme
1 lb dried penne rigate
Salt and pepper
Piment d’espelette

Remove the membrane from the underside of the rib racks (if you don’t, the membrane shrinks, and pulls the ribs into too much of a c-shape; also, you don’t want to serve the membrane). Season generously with salt on both sides.

Place a saute pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add just enough oil to film. Place the racks meat side down in the oil and brown well (if you are using ibérico, a considerable amount of fat may render); turn over and brown a minute more. Remove and set aside; spoon off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp of the fat. To the pan add the onions and sweat until translucent; add the carrot and celery and continue to sweat until all the vegetables just lose their bite.

Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the tomatoes and garlic confit and bring to a simmer, breaking up. Add the stock and herbs and bring to a simmer again. Return the ribs to the pan – meat side down is best to ensure they are fully submerged.

Braising.

Reduce heat and cover. Keep just below a simmer until ribs are tender, about 2 hours. Alternatively, place in a 180F/82oven for about 4 hours. If necessary, cook longer; the ribs should offer no resistance to a knife tip.

Remove the ribs and separate the meat from the bones. Discard the bones. Transfer the tomato and vegetable braising liquid to a vitaprep or use an immersion blender to blend down into a sauce. The sauce need not be especially smooth. Season with salt, espelette, and pepper to taste. Return the ribs to the pot with the sugo and hold.

Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with the sugo; plate and top with the rib meat.

Ibérico ribs, tomato sugo, penne.

Special thanks again to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta for this dish.

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Cheese, Italian, Random Thoughts, Science

It’s easy being cheesy.

One of the worst feelings from a cook’s standpoint is the realization that you’re missing an ingredient you were sure you had. It’s happened to us all – you go to prepare a mise en place and discover you left eggs off your shopping list, or could have sworn you had celery left over from making stock, but were mistaken. In our house, it’s usually lemons. My husband makes great iced tea, heavy on the lemons, and is notorious for using the last three or four lemons in the refrigerator in the process. At these times, I envy my brother and his wife, who live in Los Angeles and have a giant, ever-bearing lemon tree right outside the kitchen window. I can’t say I normally envy anyone who lives in Los Angeles, but I make exceptions.

Ricotta used to be the great missing ingredient. In June, when the courgette plants were putting out dozens of blossoms a week, we’d come home from work every day eager to stuff them with ricotta, only to remember that we had none. Summer peaches from the farmstand called for a squeeze of lemon, a shred of mint, and a spoonful of ricotta, except we almost always had to leave off the ricotta. In winter, gnocchi invariably were made with potato, not ricotta. One day, I realized that we were depriving ourselves unnecessarily. With a quart or two of milk from the 7-11 next door and a little vinegar, we could have fresh ricotta in less than half an hour.

Soft, mildly tangy, and sweet, true ricotta is one of the ultimate examples of frugal cuisine. During cheesemaking, an enzymatic or chemical coagulant such as rennet combines with casein and other milk proteins to form curds. The remaining liquid, called whey, is drained off, and the curds are pressed to make cheese or used immediately as fresh cheese. Although the curds contain most of the milk’s proteins and fats, some remain in the whey, and to extract these, Italian cheesemakers make ricotta. Ricotta means “re-cooked,” and ricotta represents the second use of the milk – a use for the whey that separates from the curds. Traditionally, the whey would be left to ferment and become acidic, and then heated. The acid and heat together cause the protein strands in the whey to unravel and link together, forming clumps or curds. Once again, the liquid is drained off, and the remaining soft white curd – ricotta – is used fresh or salted and pressed to make a firm cheese – ricotta salata – suitable for crumbling or grating.

Because whey contains relatively little milk protein, true ricotta-making is a low yield process. In the United States, most of the whey from the cheesemaking process is dehydrated and used in food processing to add certain milk proteins to baked goods and other products, in animal feed, and in dietary supplements. For this reason, consumer demand for ricotta far exceeds the amount of whey available for ricotta-making. Americans consume about 13 ounces of ricotta per capita per year, and although that might not seem like much, it’s about 250 million pounds for the United States as a whole. Production of this quantity of ricotta would require at least 2 billion gallons (about 8 billion liters) of whey. So supermarket-brand “ricotta” generally is made entirely from milk, or a combination of milk and whey, and is not as much a frugal product as it is a creamy, delicious one. Rather than acidifying the milk through fermentation, most ricotta is made with citric acid or distilled white vinegar, which – in addition to being much faster and safer than overnight fermentation – lends a clean-tasting mild sourness to the cheese. Milk plus vinegar? You can make it at home.

Ricotta offers some of the same qualities as the fresh cheeses it resembles, such as the Indian classic paneer, the Mexican queso fresco, and farmer’s cheese. Because acid-coagulated cheeses comprise firm clumps of tightly bound milk protein, they do not melt when heated but just dry out. Have you ever tried to melt paneer or ricotta? You can’t. They may shed water, leaving behind an even drier curd, but they won’t melt, so don’t try. When cooking with ricotta (as in a squash blossom filling, or a ricotta pie), keep it moist by combining the ricotta with beaten egg so the egg proteins bind with the liquid in the ricotta to form something almost akin to a custard that holds the ricotta in place. Or dollop it on top of pizza (see recipe below), and bake just long enough to warm it through. Take advantage of its mild richness in gnocchi or cavatelli (also see below). In summer, don’t bother cooking it at all – fresh ricotta makes the perfect addition to a salad of peaches, zucchini, raw beets, and other vegetables. Lemon or lime zest and a pinch of salt bring out its sweet qualities.

Summer salad of peaches, zucchini, fresh ricotta, lemon.

Ricotta

You can try making this with sheep’s milk, if you can find it. Citric acid is typical of Italian ricotta production, but can be slightly more difficult to find in the United States than vinegar. If you’d like to try the citric acid method, look in the kosher foods section of the supermarket for “sour salt.”

2 quarts (1.9 liters) milk, preferably not ultra-pasteurized
4 tbsp distilled white vinegar OR 1/2 tsp citric acid (sour salt)
½ tsp kosher salt

You also will need a thermometer accurate under 200F/93C; a colander; and butter muslin, cheesecloth, or paper towels.

Line your colander with paper towels, cheesecloth (a double or triple thickness), or butter muslin.

Combine the milk, salt, and vinegar or citric acid in a clean saucepot. Clip the thermometer on the side of the pot.

Heat slowly to at least 165F/74C but not more than 180F/82C. Don’t walk away – once milk starts to heat, it can become too hot quickly. Stir gently but often with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to prevent milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.

As the temperature increases, curds will begin to form. At first these will seem just like grainy white bits, but eventually, as nearly all the protein clumps, the curds will separate from the whey, leaving behind a fairly clear, slightly greenish-yellow fluid. Don’t worry if you don’t notice curds below 165F – once it starts to curd, it curds quickly. During this time, as you wait for the milk to curdle, keep the temperature stable – don’t let it keep increasing above 180F. Reduce heat if necessary. Once the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat, take the pan off the heat, and allow to sit for about 5-10 minutes to let the curds come together. Don’t stir too vigorously.

Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, gently scoop off the curds. Spoon into the lined colander. Leave the whey behind. If you like, you can drink it (but it will be quite sour) – that greenish-yellow cast is the essential vitamin riboflavin. Don’t try to use it again to make true ricotta – it won’t work.

Leave the ricotta to drain. You should have about 2 cups (just under a pound). After about 20-30 minutes, the curds will be thick but soft and creamy. If you want to use the ricotta for a baked good, or in gnocchi, let it drain overnight. In such cases, I recommend changing the lining in the colander and, for the driest possible ricotta, weighting the towel- or cheesecloth-wrapped ricotta with a heavy can to press down on the solids.

Ricotta, after an hour.

Note: If you have access to true whey from cheesemaking, you can use it to make ricotta by this method. Expect a far lower yield (generally about 1/2 cup of cheese per gallon of whey).

Cavatelli or gnocchi

As with any other gnocchi, the key to light ricotta dumplings is to work in as little flour as possible. To accomplish this, the ricotta should be barely moist and a little crumbly by the time you incorporate the other ingredients, or you will wind up using a lot of flour. Eggs bind together the ricotta and flour. Precise measurements will get you in trouble here – you should rely on feel and appearance to guide you.

“00” flour is low protein and, accordingly, develops less gluten upon kneading. If you can find it, use it. Otherwise, all-purpose flour is fine.

16 ounces ricotta (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 tbsp kosher or sea salt
1 egg and 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
roughly 1 c “00” flour, or all-purpose, more or less

Combine the ricotta and salt and place in a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Twist the cheesecloth to cover the ricotta. Place a weight such as a heavy can, on top and refrigerate, covered, for up to two days. Discard the liquid.

Set water to boil.

Turn the ricotta into a clean bowl and add the olive oil and eggs. Combine well. Spread the flour in an even pile on a clean wooden board and place the ricotta mixture in the center of the flour. Pile half the flour from the sides onto the top of the ricotta and, using a bench scraper, cut the flour in (as one would for biscuits), scraping from beneath the ricotta and bringing it to the top, and repeating. The dough will come together but will be sticky. Sprinkle in a little more flour and knead lightly.

When you reach the point that the dough holds together and is no longer sticky or tacky, divide it into four pieces and roll each out into a long log about 3/4″ in diameter. The more quickly you roll and the less pressure you apply, the easier this will be. Using the bench scraper, cut each roll into 1/2″ pieces.

To form cavatelli, roll each gnoccho toward you on a lightly floured cutting board with your index and middle fingertips, pressing down lightly as you roll. Alternatively, roll using the tines of a fork, pressing down slightly as you reach the tip of the tines.

Cavatelli.

Cook the gnocchi or cavatelli immediately in simmering salted water. Once they float, remove with a slotted spoon. Sauce as desired – tomato sauce with cheese, meat ragù, and sage brown butter are among the many excellent choices. To freeze uncooked excess gnocchi, spread in a single layer on a sheet pan (preferably lined with a silpat). Freeze until solid and then scoop into a plastic bag.

Ricotta cavatelli, beef short rib, veal stock reduction, Parmigiano-Reggiano

For sage brown butter:
1/2 c plus several additional tablespoons unsalted butter
24 sage leaves
juice of 1/4 lemon
sea salt
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat 1/2 c unsalted butter in a small saucepan; when foamy, add sage leaves and fry until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and continue cooking butter until nutty and deep golden brown; add a squeeze of lemon and pinch of sea salt. Drizzle the brown butter over the gnocchi and garnish with fried sage and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Optional: To brown the gnocchi, place a skillet over medium heat and add a small knob of butter; when brown and bubbling, add gnocchi to the pan and fry, turning once when golden.

Flatbread, ricotta, red onion confit

Makes 2 14-inch flatbreads:

Basic dough for flatbread [adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum, The Bread Bible]

1/2 lb all-purpose flour
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
2/3 c water 90F
1 tbsp olive oil
cornmeal, as needed

Combine all the dry ingredients except the salt in a bowl, whisking well. Add the salt and whisk well. Form a well and add the water. Stir until just combined – the dough will be ragged and floury. Form a rough ball.

Place the olive oil in a larger bowl. Add the dough and coat well. Cover tightly and rise for about 90 mins in a proofing box or from 8-48 hours in the refrigerator. If refrigerated, remove the dough and rest for an hour at room temperature before proceeding.

600F oven or as close as possible. Preheat with a pizza stone or unglazed terracotta tiles.

Punch down the dough and divide into six balls. Stretch each ball into a flat disk. Allow to rest, covered, for about 30 minutes.

Sprinkle pizza peel with cornmeal and place crust on peel. Load onto baking stone or tiles. Parbake the crust in the heated oven for about 3-4 minutes until just firm but not golden. Remove and cool slightly. Top as follows.

For the topping:

1/4 lb pancetta or unsmoked bacon, thinly sliced [the photo below depicts house-made unsmoked bacon]
1/4 lb fresh ricotta
1 lb red onions (2 large), peeled and sliced thinly pole to pole
olive oil
salt and pepper
handful flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Place a large saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add the pancetta or bacon slices and cook until completely cooked through but not deeply browned. Remove to a rack or paper towels to drain. Note: you can make this a vegetarian flatbread by leaving off the bacon/pancetta; just increase the amount of olive oil in the next step.

Add 1 tbsp olive oil if necessary and the onions to the pan. Season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat slightly and stir the onions to coat well with oil. Allow to cook undisturbed until onions begin to color, about 20 minutes. Stir the onions and continue cooking until onions are deep golden brown. Set aside.

Brush the parbaked crust with olive oil and season with pepper. Arrange an thin layer of onions over all. Distribute pancetta slices and dollops of ricotta cheese over onions. Bake for 5 minutes until crust is golden.

Garnish with chopped parsley and sea salt. Slice and serve.

Flatbread, ricotta, red onion confit (foreground).

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Italian, Lamb., Offal, Pasta, Random Thoughts, Science

The story of the lamb, as told by the belly.

We didn’t eat lamb in my house when I was growing up. It wasn’t a taste my family enjoyed. As I understood it, this anti-lamb sentiment had its origins in my father’s graduate school days at the University of Wisconsin. Back in the Sixties, he shared a house on Johnson Street with a couple of guys – also foreign students – who enjoyed cooking lamb at every opportunity. More accurately, in my dad’s recounting, they enjoyed cooking cheap cuts of lamb day and night with the kitchen windows closed, filling the house with the pungent, fatty odor, putting him off lamb for good.

On account of that experience, my mother never cooked lamb, and the only time I remember trying it as a kid was during Thanksgiving weekend 1978. We went up to Wausau, up in north central Wisconsin, where my dad’s friends and fellow political science colleagues Joe and Angie Burger lived in an old farmhouse. Maybe it’s because Joe is Czech, or something, but instead of turkey, we had mutton for the holiday. Unless you have an inside source, mutton is pretty hard to come by these days in the United States, for good reason. It’s a really tough, strongly-flavored meat. It’s basically adult sheep – lamb past its eating prime – and even back then I don’t think our dinner was retail mutton, if you get my drift. I wasn’t expecting Thanksgiving mutton, and I don’t think my dad was, either. Like any polite adult, he sliced it up, put it in his mouth piece by piece, and chewed, staring straight ahead and chasing it with wine. I don’t know if I ate it or just moved it around my plate under my Brussels sprouts. My three year-old brother was a real glutton for turkey and I think he might have cried when confronted with the mutton. All I remember for sure about that holiday was that my brother split his chin open getting out of the tub, and driving around the woods of northern Wisconsin, going deer hunting with the professors. Kind of a bloody weekend, in retrospect.

So my family’s shared food narrative, at least through the early 2000s, was that we did not eat lamb. My dad hated it, my brother hated it, I hated it, and whatever my mother really may have thought of lamb, I never saw it pass her lips. Then around 2003, in London, my dad ordered the lamb at dinner one night. “I thought you hated lamb,” I said, completely shocked. “Oh, sure,” he shrugged. “But that was before I had British lamb. British lamb is delicious. So tender and mild.” What was going on here? Had the British government kidnapped my father and replaced him with a surrogate? My now-husband looked down at his plate, smirking. He loves lamb and is always going on about how it’s so full of “lamby goodness.” I was outnumbered, Lisa Simpson in a land of lamb-eaters.

I like lamb now. There’s still something about the taste – I can’t eat too much of it. If you’re like me, and find the taste of lamb a little funky, maybe it’s the lamb, not you. According to culinary scientist par excellence Harold McGee, the distinctive taste of lamb may be down in part to the presence of skatole, a compound that comes from grazing on clover and alfalfa, and contributes a “barnyardy” element to pork as well, at least in the fattier cuts of heritage breeds. And it’s true – that flavor hasn’t been sanitized out of lamb in the way of today’s “other white meat”-style pork loin. Other reputable sources report that alkyl- and thiophenols are responsible for the characteristic “lambiness” of lamb, as is thymol – one of the phenolic compounds responsible for thyme’s distinctive quality. That seems plausible, because you definitely can get too much skatole. Present in both the meat and fat, skatole can push lamb past the smell of goats and sheep out in the pasture, beyond hay, toward manure and worse, and is responsible for the rich, mulchy, faintly rotting smell of jasmine and orange blossom as well. In other words, “barnyardy” is a polite term for something more pungent, since skatole shares the same origins as the word “scatological.” You get where I’m going with this, so if you have an uncomfortable relationship with lamb, that could be why. Strangely, as much as the pungency of skatole can put me off, the dish that brought me over to the lamb side was a frugal sauté of potato scraps in lamb fat.

No part of the animal tastes more of the lamb than its belly. Also known as the breast, the belly is the tough cut from the outside of the ribcage along the chest of the lamb. If the loin chops represent the loin eye inside the rib bones as they curve down from the spine, the belly represents the the muscle and fat layer outside the rib cage as it closes along the sternum. Lamb is by definition young, tender, and relatively lean, and the lamb belly is neither as thick nor as fatty as the corresponding portion of the pig, nor is it as tough. Even so, it can be prepared in the same way – braised, cooked sous vide at low temperatures, cured like bacon. And, unlike pork belly, it has not become ridiculously expensive. If you can find it – and in this case, a willingness to work with bigger cuts of meat and an unhealthy interest in wielding large knives is useful – you can have lamb breast for next to nothing. Use the butchered bone cut for Scotch broth or Irish stew.

Thirty six hour lamb belly, orzo gratin

This may seem an esoteric preparation using an esoteric cut of meat. Not so! As I said above, lamb breast is cheap, almost a throwaway cut. The low, slow, sous vide/low temperature cooking method involves some equipment investment, but it is simple. If you don’t have the equipment, you can braise. Use the same method as pork belly braising – instructions are included. It won’t take quite as long.

The use of Activa transglutaminase permits you to glue together the relatively thin cuts of lamb belly into thicker cuts about the size of pork belly. Its use is optional and definitely esoteric. The lamb depicted below is a doubled cut bonded with Activa RM and cooked sous vide at 140F/60C.

Two lamb breasts, on the bone (sizes will vary; you will need to weigh)
kosher salt, 1% by weight or roughly 1 tsp per pound
sugar, .5% by weight, or roughly 1/2 tsp per pound
garlic confit, one per tsp of salt
thyme branches
optional: Activa transglutaminase (RM or GS), 0.75% by weight

Cut each belly from the bone in a flat piece. Weigh and calculate the required amount of salt and sugar. Combine the salt, sugar, and garlic confit; rub on both sides of each belly. Lay atop thyme branches and place thyme on the top side as well. Cover and weight. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours, up to 72.

If using Activa to make double-thick portions of belly, scrape off any garlic paste and sprinkle Activa RM powder or spray Activa GS slurry on the meat side of each belly. Press together and tie. Seal with a few thyme leaves in vacuum bags and weight. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, up to 24. If not using Activa, simply seal with the vacuum bags and proceed.

Obverse.

Reverse.

Place in an immersion circulator or sous vide supreme for 36 hours at 140F/60C. The meat will be cooked just to medium.

Alternatively, if not cooking sous vide/low temp, place a pot large enough to hold the belly over medium heat. Bring just enough chicken stock to cover the bellies to a simmer with bay leaf, thyme branches, and garlic confit. Add the bellies, and then place in a 220F oven for three hours. Be sure the top layer of fat remains above the liquid. Use a parchment lid as well as the pot’s lid. The meat will not be pink as pictured below because of the increased heat.

Remove from the circulator (or oven) and unpack. (If not preparing immediately, follow appropriate chilling and storage procedures.) Cut into squares. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add duck fat, pork fat, or clarified butter. Place the lamb belly squares, meat side-down, for about 30 seconds; turn over to skin side-down and brown for another minute.

Serve with orzo gratin and Brussels sprouts, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds, drained on towels, and sautéed in hot duck fat.

36 hour belly.

Orzo gratin

It’s basically just macaroni and cheese. Sheep’s milk cheese complements the lamb belly nicely; black truffle is a classic winter pairing. If you don’t want to deal with the lamb belly, at least make the gratin.

Why do I toss the orzo with oil when it is common knowledge that you should not oil your pasta any more than you should rinse it in cold water before saucing? Because baked pastas tend to absorb large quantities of liquid, and if you don’t coat your orzo with the merest bit of oil before baking, it will emerge from the oven pasty, oily, and mushy, not coated with a creamy, cheesy sauce. The oil protects the orzo, which is so small and has so much surface area that it cannot withstand much contact with sauce before soaking it all up.

8 oz orzo
1 tsp grapeseed or other neutral oil (or clarified butter)
3 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
3 tbsp Wondra
one small onion, peeled and small dice 1/4″
2 c whole milk
5 oz Sottocenere al tartufo, coarsely shredded
3 oz Robiola (inside only) or another mixed sheep’s milk cheese
one black truffle, thinly sliced
salt (truffle salt would be a great choice)
1/2 c fresh breadcrumbs
thyme leaves

Oven 400F/205C.

Cook the orzo in salted, boiling water until just al dente and drain. Do not rinse. Toss in colander to break up lumps. When cool, stir with 1 tsp neutral-flavored oil or clarified butter. Set aside.

Place a saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. Add the onion and sweat until tender. Do not brown. Add the rest of the butter and, when melted, add the Wondra. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, to cook out the floury taste. Add the milk, slowly, stirring. Bring to a simmer and cook out to a bubbling and somewhat thickened texture, about ten minutes. Strain through a chinois into vitaprep (or blender) and add the cheeses. Purée.

Season with salt. Combine with orzo and thinly shaved truffle slices. Pour into a gratin dish. Top with breadcrumbs mixed with thyme. Bake until bubbling and browned.

Orzo gratin

Orzo gratin, sottocenere al tartufo, sliced burgundy truffle.

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