Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pumpkin ricotta pie

There's a reason nobody ever asks me to cook Thanksgiving dinner: I'm not wired for it. And can't be trusted to do things the traditional way.

Let's face it, my idea of a Thanksgiving feast isn't so much about the bird and the stuffing and the side dishes as it is about starting things off with my mother's manicotti (and possibly ending them with cousin Josephine's biscotti). Not exactly what most folks expect when they gather to celebrate such a uniquely American holiday, and so I don't blame people for keeping me away from the kitchen year after year.

Last Thanksgiving I did manage to snooker my way into the dessert portion of the festivities, by promising to bake a simple and completely traditional pumpkin pie.

"You're not gonna screw around with it, right?" asked My Associate, understandably dubious of my intentions. "We're talking about a straight-up, old-fashioned pumpkin pie. That's what you're offering to make, nothing else?"

Anticipating the woman's resistance I had come prepared with unimpeachable evidence to prove that my motives were pure.

"Is this traditional enough for you?" said I confidently, holding in my hand an original edition of Joy of Cooking. "It'll be by the book, I swear."

Once given the go ahead I had every intention to follow Joy of Cooking's recipe to the letter, and in fact did so in every way but one: At the last minute—while no one was watching—I decided to, well, not exactly bake a straight-up old-fashioned pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

There was some very nice fresh ricotta in the fridge, you see. It was only a small amount, leftover from the batch of mom's manicotti that I had prepared and stored away earlier in the day.

"Why not?" I muttered, looking around to see that I was indeed alone. "Nobody will even notice."

The full list of ingredients is below but basically the deal is this: Instead of using the 2 cups of pumpkin that the recipe called for, I went with 1 1/2 cups pumpkin and that 1/2 cup ricotta in the fridge. They're about to be spoon-mixed with the two eggs that are in the recipe.

Then the white and brown sugar and spices are mixed in.

Along with evaporated milk.

The pie crust is one that I swear by. It's from Cook's Illustrated and the complete recipe is below. Pour the mixture into your pie shell and bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees F, then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes, or until an inserted knife comes out clean.

And there you have it, a not entirely traditional pumpkin (and ricotta) pie that'll go along just swell with your Thanksgiving feast.

One other thing. People did notice. Who knows, they may even request the pie again this year.

Of course, I can't promise not to mess with the recipe all over again.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

For the pie crust
From Cook's Illustrated
NOTE: This recipe is for a double crust but only the bottom crust is needed here.

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water

Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses.

Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour).

Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.

Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

For the filling
Adapted from the original Joy of Cooking

1 1/2 cups cooked pumpkin 
1/2 cup ricotta (This is the only alteration I have made. Should you be looking for Joy's recipe simply ditch the ricotta and go with 2 cups of pumpkin.)
1 1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg or allspice
1/8 teaspoon cloves
2 slightly beaten eggs

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The gift of love (and pasta)

I can be pretty obsessive about fine hand tools. Once, when thumbing through Andrew Carmellini's book Urban Italian, I noticed the most beautiful pasta-cutting tools I'd ever seen. They were made of solid brass and hardwood and I knew right away that I had to own them. But the tools were nowhere to be found at the time. Believe me, I looked. Everywhere.

And so I did the only thing left that I could think of.

"Are those pasta-cutters in the book yours?" I asked Carmellini after tracking him down in New York. "And if they are, where did you get them?"

For a hotshot big city chef the man was kind and more than accommodating. Unfortunately, he couldn't say where he had purchased the tools.

"I was in Italy, traveling around the Emilia-Romagna," Carmellini explained. "That's when I picked up the cutters. I just don't remember where. Sorry."

That was eight years ago. Earlier this month I found the tools in Bologna, the capital of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, at a 233-year-old shop called Antica Aguzzeria Del Cavallo. The pasta cutters you see above are mine now, not Carmellini's. They were a gift from My Associate and traveling companion, a woman whose generosity humbles me like nothing else I can conjure.

And she didn't stop there. Resting on the same shelf as the pasta cutters was this solid brass torchietto, a press (or extruder) for making things like spaghetti, passatelli, bucatini and other shapes that require extrusion. (In the U.S. you can find this at Fante's Kitchen Shop.)

And there's more. Leaving the store we spotted this in the display window outside. It's a solid brass cutter for making medium-size noodles like fettuccine and, in all honesty, its beauty stopped both of us in our tracks.

"We're not leaving here without that," said the woman, removing her arm from mine and turning back into the ancient shop for another round of gift giving. "And don't you dare try and convince me that you don't want it."

I'm lucky that way. In the next few weeks I'll try and live up to this extraordinary generosity by putting these fine gifts to good use.

Stand by.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Roasted sauce with short ribs

I've been cooking fresh tomato sauce for weeks now and so there's plenty in the freezer to last me (and the usual suspects; you know who you are) through the year. Recipe? Fuhgeddaboudit. I wing it every time, which means that every batch of sauce, 10 or so in all this summer, has been different. The last couple batches have been especially tasty and feature whole bone-in meats, like the pork butt from a couple weeks back and now these beef short ribs.

This sauce uses up the last of my garden's tomatoes, even a few that didn't ripen. I won't bore you with the details of using green tomatoes, or the roasting process in general, as we've covered the topics before. For the background here's the Roasted Green Tomato Sauce recipe and here's another Roasted Tomato Sauce that combines both ripe and green specimens. These chopped-up garden tomatoes filled my largest metal bowl. I'm guessing it's around 8 or 10 pounds' worth of tomatoes.

Again, winging it is highly encouraged around here. To start a sauce don't be afraid to be creative. I've used huge leeks, hunks of diced-up prosciutto ends or pancetta, a piece of speck I'd been neglecting in the fridge, all kinds of things. But four items you gotta have, in whatever amount you like, are carrots, celery, onion and garlic.

This is 2 pounds of beef short ribs (bone-in). Generously coat all sides with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. (As I mentioned earlier, a whole pork butt would get the exact same treatment throughout this process should you decide to go that route instead.)

Pour plenty of olive oil into whatever oven-ready pot you'll be cooking the sauce in (mine is a 13-quart dutch oven), brown the ribs and then remove and set aside.

Add the carrots, celery, onion and garlic, along with whatever fresh herbs you like, and saute until they've softened. NOTE: You'll also see that there are several anchovy fillets in here. I always use them because they add a depth to the flavor; plus, I don't need to add as much salt. And no, you can't taste the anchovy in the sauce. Use it, don't use it, makes no difference to me.

Add half a cup to a cup of red or white wine (I often use a dry vermouth) and allow it to reduce.

Then return the ribs to the pot.

Add your tomatoes, mix everything up, cover and put in the oven preheated to 350 degress F.

When the meat is very tender (2 hours ought to do it but poke at the meat with a fork to be sure) remove the ribs and set aside to cool. Raise the oven temperature to 450 degreees F and return the pot to the oven for another 30 minutes or so, or until the sauce's consistency is to your liking. If the sauce is already the consistency you like then don't bother cooking it any longer.

After the ribs have cooled enough to handle, shred off all the meat.

All that's left to do now is add the meat to the sauce and mix thoroughly.

Oh, and boil yourslf some pasta to go with it.

But I'm pretty sure you knew that already.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Pasta with corn & gorgonzola

Sometimes it really is ALL about the ingredients.
I was in New York visiting the family and naturally made a stop at my favorite Italian food store on the planet, D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn. If you've never been then do yourself a big favor and get a move on. Now!

Anyhow, they had this beautiful hunk of cheese that I'd never tasted before: a Gorgonzola-Mascarpone blend. One of the cheesemongers, a new guy that I didn't know, offered me a try and I liked it so much that I bought the entire two-pound piece.

Nothing succeeds like excess.
By the time I got home to Maine, the best thing waiting for me (besides about 10 more pounds of ripe tomatoes in the garden and, okay, the woman) was corn season. After plowing through an unknown quantity of fresh-from-the-farm corn and a not insignificant amount of the cheese, the idea of putting the two together came to me.
Normally I steam corn but in this case I filled a big pot with water, tossed in a handful of salt, and blanched two ears for three minutes. Do not throw away the water. It's what you'll cook the pasta in. Get it?
After the corn has cooled a bit carve off the kernels and set aside.
In a large pan saute three or four garlic cloves in olive oil until tender, then add one medium-size chopped fresh tomato. Cook for two or three minutes. This is also a good time to get your pasta started in the pot that you cooked the corn in.
Add the corn and several basil leaves.
Then add about 1/4 pound of the cheese. If you can't find the Gorgonzola-Mascarpone then maybe use a mild gorgonzola instead.
Stir it all up, add some freshly ground black pepper, then cook at medium heat for around five minutes.
When the pasta is ready add it to the pan and incorporate. Make sure to save some of the pasta water and add as needed to keep things moist.
My guess is that corn season will be around a little while longer. As for the Gorgonzola-Mascarpone, well, I'm always looking for a reason to drive down and visit la famiglia!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

An unholy communion

This was supposed to be a story about food. With a recipe. Maybe even two of them.

I swear.

It was all planned out. For the traditional hard rolls that you see in the foreground, I'd hit up Beth Queen of Bakers for a homemade version; for those white-topped crumb buns crammed in with the rest of the pastries, Cousin Josephine was to be my accomplice. They are the best bakers that I know and I've never known either to back away from a challenge. (Except for that time when nobody would agree to help me make mortadella, but that's another story, and I've gotten over it. Almost.)

I love hard rolls and crumb buns, have since I was a boy. But neither is available in the place where I now live. This makes me crazy. Seriously. What's so difficult? I shouldn't have to call in the New York cavalry to get a job like this one done.

However, and as often happens, the truth got in the way of a good plan. I never did shoot Beth that exploratory email asking if she'd consider whipping up a batch of hard rolls, nor did I harass Jo about the crumb buns when we saw each other at Cousin John's birthday party a couple weeks back.

You see, the truth about this "food" photograph doesn't reside on top of the table with the baked goods and the juice glasses and the coffee cups. It's buried underneath all of that. And it haunts me to this day.

I really do wish that I'd never laid eyes on this old photo.

As you might have guessed, the round-faced knucklehead on the left is me; the other is Cousin Vito. We're dressed like this because we've just sufferred through our First Holy Communion and are about to dig into the post-event celebratory breakfast. In the Catholic Church this sacrament occurs at around the second grade, which would put Vito and me at seven or eight years old. First Communion is The Big Show for Catholics, the rite of passage equivalent to the Jews' bar and bat mitzvah, only without the lox, bagels and mazel tovs. You can see that our parents had to spring for some fancy new duds on this occassion, as neither my cousin nor I were known to sport all-white suits and matching, well, everything else around the Brooklyn streets on which we were reared.

It's the suit that haunts me in this photograph, not the baked goods. More precisely, the part of the suit that is underneath the table and away from view. One of the pant legs is torn open at the knee, the other at the upper calf. The seat is ripped. And around half of all the fabric isn't white any longer; it's street-asphalt black. If memory serves one of the elbows on my suit jacket is also compromised, though not enough to ruin the visual in this photo commemorating the holy event.

All this damage was done in mere moments, once Vito and I and our fellow second gradesmen had emerged from the church after the ceremony was completed. Apparently, milling about the slate-lined entryway to St. Rita's and reflecting on my first taste of the son of God appealed less than finding a ball and running into the schoolyard. I don't recall how many times my nice white suit met with the hot black asphalt, but it should have been apparent to a newly sacramented Christian that even one time was far too many.

Especially after what had happened before the ceremony. That was even worse.

On my way walking to the church, you see, I broke a radio antenna off of a parked car—and got caught. I didn't meant to break it; it just happened. But Joe Stella's father was looking out of his third-floor window at the exact moment that his antenna toppled to the curb alongside his Buick. He screamed at me to stay right where I was and when he got down to his car he picked up the antenna and started whipping it around like he was going to hit me with it.

"You're not going anywhere until you pay for this antenna," Mr. Stella shouted. "I'm taking you to your father right now."

Our apartment was half a block away and so me, Joe's father and the recently unattached antenna were home in a flash. Mom and dad were on their way out the door, on their way to the church where I was supposed to already be.

"You owe me money," Mr Stella shouted. "This son of yours broke this antenna right off of my car for no good reason and I want to get paid for it right now."

My poor parents. I'd already ruined the entire day. And it hadn't even started yet.

Dad and Mr. Stella moved down the street to settle my debt. I had to stay with mom, who was crying the whole time. The three of us walked to the church together but nobody said a word. After the ceremony, when mom and dad got a load of what I'd done to my new suit in the schoolyard, I'm surprised they didn't ditch me and go home by themselves.

I would have if I were them. Why waste a perfectly good spread of fabulous baked goods on a no-account numbnut who clearly does not deserve them?

An argument I surely will not be making to Beth and Cousin Josephine next time I'm looking to score myself some nice hard rolls and crumb buns.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Why Father's Day matters

My father was a corporal in the United States Army during World War II. His assignment was that of cook. I'm in possession of his Official Recipe Manual. It sits on a bookcase in my home, near a spot where I often sit and in a place where I can access it readily. Occasionally I will browse its uninspired government-issue recipes, but never have felt a need to prepare any of them.

Just a couple days ago I received this photograph. It is the only picture that I have of my father at work in his Army kitchen, such as it is. Already it is among my most prized possessions.

My father's name was Michael. He lived to be 54, just old enough to witness his New York Mets win the 1969 World Series but well shy of seeing his three sons make it out of grade school, let alone experiment with becoming men.

Except for the occasional Crispy Leftovers Dish, my father did none of the cooking around our house. Every day he opened the family's fountain service store at 5 a.m., and didn't close til around 7 p.m. There was no time to practic his military-learned kitchen craft. Besides, my mother was born to cook. Ask anybody who lived within half a mile of our apartment in Brooklyn; they'll tell you. Mom's husband just wasn't needed to rack up stove time when he was at home with his wife and kids, and so he didn't.

Not being a parent it's been a long time since Father's Day has meant very much to me. But this year I find myself thinking about it a lot, and I'm sure that I have this old photograph to thank. Just last evening I was sipping wine in my kitchen and fixing something to eat. And I swear, all I could think about was how good it would be to cook a big, special dinner for my father on Sunday. I'm still thinking about it now.

Like all things that occur between fathers and sons, the results might be difficult to determine. I can't say that my father would be proud of the way I handle myself in the kitchen, or in all the other important things that determine how well a man lives his life.

I can hope, though. And I do. Because it matters. And probably always will.

Happy Father's Day everybody!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orecchiette with broccoli & pancetta

I was on my own last night, and had planned on heading out for a burger. But then I got to searching the travel websites for a very-much-hoped-for European trip this fall. Naturally the search brought me to Italy and, well, there went the beef-and-beer plans.

This whole thing took around half an hour. And everything I needed was already in the house. So was plenty of wine, of course, and so I cracked open a bottle and got to work.

In enough well-salted water to cook a pound of pasta, blanch a large head of broccoli, or a couple medium-size heads, then set aside. Do not throw away the water; you'll be using it to cook the pasta.

At medium heat slowly saute around 1/3-pound of cubed pancetta (or bacon if you prefer) in olive oil until lightly crisp, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon.

Saute 4 or 5 sliced garlic cloves in the same pan, along with some hot pepper if you like.

Once the garlic has softened add the pancetta and the broccoli to the pan and incorporate.

After the orecchiette is cooked add it to the pan using a large slotted spoon. Again, do not throw away the pasta water just yet.

All that's left to do now is add around three ladles full of the pasta water and incorporate.

Oh, and top with some grated cheese.

But you knew that.