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a tomato, mount butter into a sauce, sear a pork chop before finishing in the oven, and then trying the same from my outdated Minneapolis kitchen.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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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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Pasta, Pork Products, Potatoes

Winner winner gnocchi dinner.

About a year ago, I answered a question about successful gnocchi-making, noting that both egg and flour can make gnocchi heavy or tough, and that “once you become adept, you may be able to incorporate the flour and potato without using any egg at all.” Well, now’s the time.

Here’s why. Kneading wheat flour with liquid develops gluten, a protein that, once developed, lends structure and elasticity. Gluten denatures and firms when exposed to heat. Egg proteins – particularly the ovoalbumin in the white – denature and form an increasingly hard gel when exposed to heat. Together, flour and egg transform fluffy, starchy potato into poachable dumplings. Without anything to hold together the potato, it will simply disintegrate and dissolve into the cooking liquid. With too much, however, the dumplings become tough and/or heavy.

One way to minimize the potential for toughness is to eliminate the egg entirely. You don’t need it; the egg really just enriches the gnocchi. Using egg, however, means you must use more flour to soak up the egg’s moisture. The more flour you add, and the longer you knead the dough, the stiffer and more leaden the gnocchi will be. So dispense with the egg, and use just enough flour to lend structure to the potato. Work the flour-potato mixture long enough to develop the gluten so the gnocchi don’t completely collapse on cooking. Rest the dough before forming, to allow the gluten to relax for more tender dumplings.

A lot of people think the eggless gnocchi are more difficult to make than the egg-enriched variety. I disagree. Once you get the hang of these, they’re easier and far faster to make than any gnocchi involving egg, and the texture is so much better. Counting the time to bake the potatoes, you can get these out in an hour; make extra and freeze them if you like. You may incorporate small quantities of light, dry flavorings like minced herbs or Parmigiano-Reggiano at the same time as the flour.

Potato gnocchi

Preheat the oven to 400F/204C and, using a fork, poke several holes in the potato skin. Place the potatoes in kosher salt in a baking dish and place in the hot oven; alternatively, simply bake directly on the oven rack. The salt is not essential. Bake until thoroughly tender.

As soon as possible, halve the potatoes, scoop out the innards, and rice directly onto a wooden board. Spread out on the board by fluffing with a fork to release steam. Set salted water to boil.

Riced potato, spread out to dry.

Season the surface of the riced potato lightly with salt and then add just enough flour to coat the surface of the potato at first; knead together until the mixture forms a sticky dough. If it’s too sticky (sticking mostly to your hands), add more flour. I use my fingertips to grab just a couple of tbsp at a time, to avoid over-flouring.

Sprinkled with flour (and salt).

When you reach this point – the dough holds together but is not stiff, and is a little sticky but not gluey – cover with a clean kitchen towel and rest for about 30 minutes to give the gluten time to relax. Then portion with a bench scraper and roll quickly and lightly with your hands on a flour-dusted board into a rope about 3/4″ in diameter. Don’t press too hard as you roll; just press hard enough to roll to 3/4″. The surface shouldn’t be sticky; it should feel smooth. Using the bench scraper, cut into 3/4″ pieces. Roll each piece out onto a gnocchi board or the tines of a fork if you like.

Cook the gnocchi immediately in just-boiling salted water until they float. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in heated bowls.

Rolled and grooved.

Sauce as you like. These are served with braised ibérico de bellota pork cheeks and peas, in a sauce of the reduced braising liquid, with thyme and chive. You can finish with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I did not.

I used the ibérico de bellota product I wrote about here – you can order it from Ibérico USA. I highly recommend it – the cheek meat is sweet and rich.

Pork cheeks, peas, gnocchi.

2 lb/1kg pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 c/450 ml light red wine (I used a pinot noir; brouilly or something similar would be great as well)
6 c/1.4 l quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
bouquet garni
1c shelled English peas
several branches thyme, leaves only
chive, minced

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a covered container and chill until ready to use. Strain the braising liquid through chinois. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan, torn to coarse chunks with a fork. Add the peas. Heat through until the peas are cooked.

Sauce the gnocchi with the cheek and pea, and the reduced braising liquid. Garnish with chives and thyme, and black pepper.

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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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Beef, Lamb., Leftover Recycling, Pasta, Quick Meals

Mystery meat.

One of the risks of digging around the freezer for leftovers to recycle is that sometimes you think you’re getting one thing when actually you’re getting quite another. This risk increases significantly if the packets of frozen food aren’t labeled. As is sometimes the case in our freezer.

One morning last week, before leaving for the office, I rummaged around the plastic tubs in the reach in looking for something I could recycle quickly in the evening. Our recent eatdown has been fairly successful – we’ve used up most of the scrap short rib and had some terrific pork belly earlier in the week – and pickings are getting slimmer. The problem is that many frozen, vacuum packed, unlabeled packets of leftover meat look the same, and when we returned home that evening, I puzzled about the lumpy brown contents before deciding to make something else. What were they?

The answer came the next night when, after a bad commute back from DC, I decided it was time to use the mystery meat. Whatever it was, I’d work something out. Sealed within thick plastic, it looked like giant soy crumbles, but it couldn’t have been, since we don’t eat that stuff. I sliced the packet open, and the contents rolled free. Koftes! Of course. I made the koftes – among other things – for my mother in law’s 75th birthday party after someone facetiously suggested I buy a couple of bags of Swedish meatballs from IKEA and heat them in a crockpot with some Kraft barbecue sauce. Well, I wasn’t going to do that. But I liked the idea of a meatball – something easy to prepare for 50-60 people, easy to eat while sipping a glass of wine. And I really liked the idea of these meatballs – spiced with cumin and coriander, and dressed with both sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and a savory, garlic-spiked yoghurt sauce, and a little different from the conventional meatball. I like them hot, but my husband likes the cold. It’s up to you.

Perhaps you only eat half of the koftes one night. Recycle the remainder as I did, by tossing them with pasta and yoghurt to emphasize their Levantine flavors.

rigatoni/kofte/beet green/coriander

Rigatoni, koftes, beet greens, coriander

Unlike me, you probably won’t just find these koftes in your freezer, so start from the beginning. For a lighter, less fatty meatball, use ground bison instead of some of the lamb or beef. Because these contain no filler, do not use preground beef and do not overwork the meat. Preground beef tends to be overemulsified and will form hard, tough meatballs. If you plan to serve these as a hors d’oeuvre rather than as part of this dish, garnish with yoghurt-garlic sauce and pomegranate molasses.

Sumac powder is an essential in Middle Eastern cooking and comes from the drupe fruits of the Rhus genus. It lends a slightly tart, almost smoked-fruit flavor. Although some describe the taste as “lemony,” I disagree.

Koftes

1 lb lamb shoulder or beef chuck, ground
1 large onion, minced
4 cloves garlic confit
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 c minced parsley
2 tbsp mint, chiffonade
olive oil

Saute the onion and garlic confit in a small quantity of olive oil, until soft and translucent, and lightly golden. Add the spices and saute a minute more. Combine in a bowl with the ground meat, parsley, and mint, and add the salt. Make a test meatball, cook it, and taste – adjust seasoning if necessary.

Form meatballs – 1 inch more or less – by pinching off a small amount and rolling until it just holds. Do not overwork. Place a large skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add olive oil. Fry the meatballs, in batches, on all sides until cooked through.

If making the pasta dish, prepare koftes and:

1/2 lb rigatoni
greens from a bunch of beets, both leaves and stems (omit the stems if using red beets as the result is quite lurid), sliced thinly. If not using beet root for another purpose, you may substitute chard
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp Aleppo pepper, or 1/2 tsp hot paprika
olive oil
1/2 c greek yoghurt, or 4 tbsp each plain yoghurt and sour cream, plus a little extra if necessary
sumac powder
salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add the pasta.

While the rigatoni cooks, place a large skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add olive oil. Add the garlic and, when fragrant, add the shredded beet greens and stems, the Aleppo pepper, and the coriander. Saute until tender and add the koftes. You might not use them all – my husband believes they make an excellent cold snack, so bear that in mind (and consider the yoghurt-garlic sauce below).

Drain the cooked pasta and reserve a little cooking water. Add the pasta to the greens-kofte mixture over low heat. Add the yoghurt (or yoghurt-sour cream mixture) and salt to taste. Toss well to coat, adding a little pasta water if necessary to keep the mixture moist.

Plate and season with sumac powder.

If serving with yoghurt-garlic sauce:

1 cup greek yoghurt
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp salt
Pomegranate molasses

Combine the yoghurt, garlic, and salt to taste. Set aside in the refrigerator, covered, until you have cooked the koftes and are ready to serve.

Drizzle the koftes with pomegranate molasses. Serve with the yoghurt-garlic sauce.

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Beef, Leftover Recycling, Pasta, Quick Meals

Recycling is good: the Please Let It Be Autumn edition

Our freezers are really, really full. I realized this when, the week we returned from our vacation, I had to stop rummaging through the plastic tubs in the freezer to find a couple of chicken leg quarters out of frustration. This happens from time to time, and it’s my fault. My mother was big on using every last bit of every meal if possible, and I picked up her aversion to waste. So trimmings from vegetable brunoise go into stock; bits of potato get fried up, transformed into hash or potato cakes; meat trimmings become sausage.

Throughout the fall and winter, braised meats are big in the kitchen. These are classic cold-weather fare – you have to eat them warm, because they’re no good chilled. They tend to be rich from all the gelatin. They take hours to cook, and warm your kitchen nicely in the process. Braises are rustic, and for the sake of presentation, I often trim braised meat into squared-off shapes – the trim goes into bags, vacuum sealed, labeled, and stored in one of the plastic tubs in the freezer along with any leftovers and what’s left of the savory reduced braising liquid.

A basic short rib braise involves three common elements in addition to the meat: a vegetable base, usually a classic mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrot or one of its analogues (such as soffritto); an acidifier, like tomato or wine (usually both); and the braising liquid, generally stock but sometimes water. To this, you can add a variety of dried fruits, or aromatics – thyme, bay, and leek are classic; pimentón is a favorite flavoring in my kitchen; licorice, star anise, or cinnamon provide a sweet note. Long cooking at low temperatures allows the meat to become tender and the collagen in the short rib to break down to gelatin, yielding that distinctive and unctuous mouthfeel. During the New Year holiday, I posted the basic recipe for a reader who wanted to make a spectacular and festive dinner. I’ve made this dish – and its variants – many times, and we have the freezer full of trimmings to show for it.

When you have a long commute, getting dinner together can be a problem. It’s too late to cook a meal involving a lot of prep. That’s where the trimmings come in. Rather than resorting to takeout or pizza – or some kind of supermarket ready meal – the trimmings are a perfect accompaniment for pasta, polenta, gnocchi, or even rice. Start to finish, it takes about 20 minutes, but almost all of that time you can spend unwinding with a glass of wine rather than cooking. Not bad for a hasty weeknight meal.

Not too shabby for leftovers.

Short rib, sedanini

If, like me, you have a vacuum sealer or a FoodSaver, and you’ve sealed up your leftovers or trim, you can throw the bag into simmering water until it’s good and hot, which takes about the same amount of time as cooking pasta or rice, and a little less time than making polenta, and leaves almost no mess to clean up. The recipe below features pasta.

1 lb dried pasta, preferably a short, textured variety like sedanini or orecchiette
about 12 ounces leftover short rib, whole chunks or trimmings with or without reduced braising liquid
fresh herbs and aromatics – thyme, flat-leaf parsley, chives, lemon or orange zest
salt and pepper

Optional (see recipe):
1 tsp tomato paste
2-3 tbsp dry red wine
2-3 tbsp veal or chicken stock, or a good quality commercial stock or broth

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente (usually between 8-10 minutes depending on the type of pasta and the strength of your stove). Meanwhile, if you have vacuum sealed your short rib, bring a separate pot of water to a simmer, add the bag of short rib to the pot, and simmer until hot. If you have not, heat the short rib slowly, over medium-low heat. If necessary, you may add a little pasta cooking water (just a tablespoon or two) to loosen the rib.

If your trimmings or leftovers are completely dry – devoid of any sauce at all – you may want to “doctor” them slightly. Add a small quantity – not more than a couple of tablespoons – of wine to the short rib and bring to a simmer, reducing until the wine is nearly gone and it no longer smells alcohol-ish. Add the tomato paste and the broth, and simmer until a thick and barely evident sauce forms. Taste for salt and season with salt (if necessary) and pepper.

Drain the pasta and toss with the short rib. Plate and garnish with herbs and, if using, lemon zest.

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Pasta, Vegetables

Just beet it.

I don’t recall ever eating beets as a kid. This may have been a chicken-egg situation – like most kids I was driven to eat the familiar, so perhaps my mom decided to play the odds and stay away from beets. As an adult I don’t know why I ever would have objected. Beetroot is mild and sweet, and the leaves delicate, more so than spinach.

Beets and spinach are part of the same plant family, Amaranthaceae. If the word amaranth brings to mind houseplants with ruffly, vivid, pink-red and green leaves, that’s because they’re part of the same family. Quinoa, a nutritional superstar, is not a grain, like many believe, but the seed of another member of the family. Beetroot, spinach, quinoa, and chard used to be separately classified from other amaranths, in a family called Chenopodiaceae, or, literally, “goosefeet,” named for their fleshy, ribbed leaves. Indeed, beet greens are not only edible but delicious. Swiss chard (or silverbeet) is a variant of beet specifically cultivated for its mild greens, but if you buy fresh beets with the tops attached, you can enjoy both the root and the leaves.

The famously vivid color of beets and chard stems is due to pigments collectively called betalains. The betacyanins lend red to purple hues; betaxanthins show off bright yellow, gold, and orange. As anyone who’s ever prepared beets knows, these pigments can end up all over the kitchen, your hands, and your clothes – beet cells are unstable and prone to leakage when cut, heated, or exposed to air. Add red beets to any dish and you can expect it to emerge brilliantly pink or purple.

Roasted beet salad with walnuts and Maytag blue

Golden beets – colored by betaxanthins – are no less vivid than their deep red counterparts. They do tend to taste milder and somewhat less “dirty” because of lower levels of geosmin, the compound that lends the earthy, dirty flavor to beets.

Golden beetroot.

I used golden beets for this salad (to avoid problems with the ravioli later), but the typical red beet works perfectly. You can obtain spectacular results using Chioggia beets, an heirloom variety that, when sliced across the equator, displays a many-ringed bullseye.

In my opinion, the best way to prepare cooked beets is to roast them whole, in a foil package, at about 400F/205C, for about 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the beet. Drizzle the beet with a little oil before roasting. The steam from the beets softens the peel – once the beet is cooked through, the peel is easy to remove with a paring knife.

4 beets, scrubbed well, greens removed and reserved
2 ounces Maytag Blue or other blue cheese, cut into very small wedges or crumbled
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) shelled walnuts, broken
2 c arugula, washed and spun dry
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil plus extra for roasting
Salt and pepper

Oven 400F/205C.

Drizzle the beets with a little oil before roasting. Place in aluminum foil and fold the foil over, sealing the sides to form a loose envelope. It is not necessary to form a perfect package. Roast for about 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the beet. At the last five to ten minutes of roasting, place the walnuts on a sheet pan and roast on a separate rack until golden. Remove from the oven.

Once the beets are tender to the center, remove from the oven and cool the beets. Remove with a paring knife or peel with your fingers (a paring knife may yield cleaner results and spare you the stained fingers).

Cut each beet into eighths and toss lightly with about 1 tbsp of the sherry vinegar. Arrange the wedges on individual plates, or on one large platter, along with the Maytag Blue and toasted walnuts. In a bowl, place the remaining tablespoon of sherry vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a little black pepper. Slowly drizzle the oil into the vinegar to form an emulsion. Dress the arugula and add it to the plates.

Finish with sea salt and pepper.

Golden beet, Maytag blue, walnut, arugula.

Beet green ravioli

I always roll out pasta sheets by hand using a French pin (just a really long, tapered rolling pin). I enjoy the exertion and find that it is possible to achieve a thinner dough by hand-rolling than by using a machine. That said, there’s no shame in using the pasta roller.

Using a pastry wheel to cut the filled pasta sheets into square ravioli results in less scrap dough than using a round biscuit cutter, as I have. The choice is a matter of aesthetics (although square ravioli tend to have a higher ratio of pasta to filling). Don’t worry, the scraps don’t go to waste. I cut them with a knife into small, rough shapes (about 1/2″) called malfatti – literally, badly formed – dry them, cook like regular pasta, and sauce with butter and cheese.

I really recommend using golden beets if you’re going to prepare this dish as part of an all-beet meal. Having developed this dish originally using red beets, I can tell you that the resulting pasta filling assumes an unsettling pink hue, much like Pepto-Bismol. If you aren’t preparing an all-beet meal, substitute Swiss chard for the beet greens.

Beet green, ricotta, pine nut, lemon.

Reserved beet greens from 4 beets or one bunch swiss chard, separated into leaves and stems, and washed very well
1/2 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c ricotta cheese
1 egg white (from pasta below)
2 lemons, zested and juiced
large pinch grated nutmeg
olive oil
salt and black pepper
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
flat leaf parsley, washed and dried

2 c/250g/scant 9 ounces “00” flour or King Arthur Italian-style flour; otherwise all-purpose is fine, plus extra for dusting
2 whole large eggs plus one egg yolk
1/4 c water

First make the filling. Stack the chard leaves several at a time, roll tightly, and slice as thinly as possible (chiffonade). Dice the stems about 1/4″ or smaller if you can.

Place a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 1 tbsp olive oil. Add the onions and sauté until lightly golden; add the garlic and sauté a minute more until just fragrant. Do not brown. Add the leaves and stems and saute until tender and wilted. Remove from heat and season with lemon juice to taste (a little less than 1 lemon, not much more), salt and pepper, nutmeg, and zest of one lemon. Stir together the ricotta and the egg white. When the beet green or chard sauté is cool, stir in the ricotta. You can make a test quenelle and cook in the microwave to taste for seasoning – adjust by adding more acid, lemon zest, salt, or pepper.

Place the flour in a mound on a large wooden board and form a well in the center. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks and add to the well. Using a fork with your dominant hand, stir the eggs while using your other hand to push flour from the pile into the well. Don’t work too fast or the well will break and you’ll find egg everywhere. If the dough is too tough and solid, add a little water.

Once all the flour is incorporated, dust the board with flour and knead the dough until smooth, with the texture of baby skin. If it’s sticky, add more flour to the dough (always keep the board dusted); if it’s too tough to knead, add a little water. Divide the dough into fourths using a sharp knife or bench scraper and cover three of the quarters with a kitchen towel.

Pasta dough.

If you’re using a pasta machine, roll out the sheets. Otherwise, dust the board with flour and roll out the piece of pasta dough using a French pin. Roll from the center out, until you have a uniform sheet about 1/6″ thick. Then continue to roll from the center out to form a thinner and thinner sheet. Once the sheet becomes quite thin focus on making it uniform. It should be thin enough to be translucent and virtually see-through.

Rolled out pasta sheet.

Add the filling, in 2-3 tsp amounts, at intervals depending on the size of the ravioli you intend to make on one half of the sheet. If you cut into squares using a rolling pastry wheel, you will have less waste. You also can stamp using a round cutter (like a biscuit cutter). Fold over the sheet and seal around the filling. Stamp or cut the dough. Once cut, use your fingers to seal again around the edges to ensure they do not leak during cooking. Place on a clean kitchen towel until ready to cook. Repeat with the pasta sheets until finished.

Stamped out ravioli.

Set a pot of salted water to simmer. Add the ravioli and simmer until they float. Unlike dry pasta, which must cook at a rolling boil or it will turn gummy, this fresh ravioli should not boil or it will disintegrate. Drain.

As the ravioli are cooking, place a small skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the butter. When it turns golden brown and foamy, add the juice of one lemon and remove from heat. Season with salt. Plate the ravioli (or use one large platter for family-style) and pour the lemon brown butter over all. Garnish with lemon zest, sea salt, parsley, and pine nuts.

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