Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pasta e Fagioli

Winter always finds me cooking comfort food for myself and my family and among my very favorite comfort foods is pasta e fagioli, the classic Italian pasta and bean dish that is associated primarily with Tuscany, home of the mangiafagioli, the bean eaters. Like the recipes for most comfort foods around the world, the recipe for pasta e fagioli varies widely, sometimes a soup, sometimes a thick stew, sometimes with tomatoes, sometimes without, sometimes with red wine, sometimes with white—you get the idea. With no further introduction, then, here is my version. Please enjoy.

Pasta e Fagioli

extra virgin olive oil
3-4 ounces pancetta, in small dice
1 carrot, in small dice
1 onion, in small dice
2 stalks celery, in small dice
12 fresh sage leaves, finely minced
4 sprigs fresh Italian parsley, finely minced
8 branches fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 small branch rosemary, finely minced
salt and pepper, to taste
8 cloves garlic, minced
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
2 tablespoons tomato paste (Italian doppio concentrato)
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups broth or water
½ pound dried cannellini, soaked and precooked
   (or 2 15-ounce cans cannellini)
1 pound ditalini
Grated cheese

Film the bottom of a heavy soup pot with extra virgin olive oil. Over high heat, cook the pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, fresh herbs, and a pinch of salt and pepper for several minutes, until the vegetables start to brown.

Add the minced garlic, red pepper flakes, and the tomato paste. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the garlic smells wonderful and the tomato paste starts to caramelize on the bottom of the pan.

Pour in the white wine and deglaze the bottom of the pan. Let the wine evaporate by half, then add the broth or water. Instead of broth or water, you could use bean cooking broth or even pasta cooking water. Add the beans and bring up to a simmer.

While the beans and vegetables are marrying over a low flame, bring the pasta water to a boil and cook the ditalini to almost done. Strain the ditalini and add to the beans. Adjust the liquid and seasonings to your liking.

Serve in deep soup plates and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top and sprinkle with grated cheese. Pasta e fagioli pairs brilliantly with a simple light Italian red such as a Langhe Nebbiolo or a Tuscan Sangiovese.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Corvette Wines

With the coming of the new year and the spring, a lot of wines will be changing vintages, causing us to republish the wine list more frequently than during the rest of the year. Because of this, we taste a lot of candidate wines to more or less set the list for the year and to get the heavy editing out of the way during the winter lull. In spite of (or because of) tasting a lot of new wines, I feel the wine curmudgeon inside me just itching to get to the surface.

The sales reps are so right: these wines they are showing me are indeed crowd pleasers and we can indeed sell these wines oh so easily to our customers. But my inner curmudgeon is not happy with many wines he has been tasting recently. These wines—designed to be anything-but-challenging to the palates of the average American diner—are simple, one dimensional, devoid of varietal typicity, and to sum them up in a single word: boring!

Thank you Robert Parker and Wine Spectator for giving top reviews to this style of wine! These facile and easy-to-like wines have you so-called professionals suckered in just like the majority of your readers. They're just like that bright red Corvette: flashy, sexy, red, and very fast in a straight line. It takes more sophistication (or curmudgeonly tendencies) to see beyond to the car that is uncomfortable to sit in for long periods, has no visibility, has no trunk/boot space, takes a fortune to keep in repair and in fuel, and can't corner worth a darn.

That sexy 'vette's pretty fun for the occasional spin, but not one to take on a tour across the country for the long haul. Same with these wines: very sexy and tasty for a one night stand, but not one you're going to bring home to meet mama, great for the first glass and tedious thereafter.

Here's how a typical tasting session goes. The rep pours several glasses of wine. And on looking at them, I see very dark, highly extracted, deep purple, almost opaque wine. Funny, I thought that Pinot Noir was a light bodied, lightly colored wine.

And then I smell them. I get gobs and gobs of vanilla and generally a lot of fruit. What kind of fruit, who can say? Just a big snootful of very, very ripe fruit. All I can tell is that the grapes were hyperripe and that the winemakers have been very generous with their oak regimes. "Why do they all smell the same?" I wonder.

And then on to tasting. The initial impression is generally of alcohol, followed by lots of jammy fruit, loads of glycerin and (in many cases) residual sugar, and of course, lots and lots of vanilla from oak. And I say, "Wow!" in response to my senses being bombarded by obscene amounts of alcohol, fruit, sugar, and oak. The rep beams, "You like it?" I generally ignore this and ask, "What grape is this again?"

And while the rep is talking about harvesting at 29 Brix, cold maceration, and the remarkably long finish, I'm wondering where the acid and tannins, the backbone of the wine, went. And moreover, where its soul went.

When I taste a wine, especially a food wine, I don't want to be bombarded with alcohol, fruit, sugar, or oak. I would like a restrained wine that can play in harmony with food and one that has sufficient acid and tannins to refresh my palate between bites of food. And above all, I never want to ask, "What grape is this again?"

I value diversity in wine and appreciate each grape on its own merits: Sangiovese for its light body and red cherry fruit and Syrah for its weight, white pepper, and slightly funky nose as expressed in classic Chave Hermitage. What I don't appreciate is when I have to ask why the Shiraz, the Cab, the Merlot, and the Malbec that I am tasting all taste the same, all deep red, sexy, and slinky.

I worry that I may be the last of a dying breed, someone who learned wine B.P. (Before Parker). I worry that I am the last of the breed that appreciates acid and tannins, varietal typicity, and diversity. I wonder if any customers will get what I am ranting about.

Thank you again Bob Parker and Marv Shanken, but would you please get your Corvettes out of my parking lot?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eggshell Color

A friend and I got to discussing eggs and that got me to wondering if chickens had been bred to select for eggshell coloration. I know of certain fowl that lay turquoise blue to olive green eggs, such as Araucanas and Pheasants, fowl that lay white eggs such as Leghorns, and fowl that lay brown eggs such as Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds.

All the chicken eggs in our kitchen are brown. Why? Because that's the color that our farmer's Rhode Island Red hens lay. If they laid white eggs, we'd have eggs with white shells. I've used tens and tens of thousands of eggs in my life and one thing is clear, shell color makes no difference to the egg inside.

What matters for flavor is freshness and a fresh egg is a good egg, except for boiled eggs. The shells of fresh eggs do not want to release from the albumen, but that's the subject of another article.

I notice a reverse snob appeal to brown eggs that has developed over the past couple of decades. Factory eggs here in the US, all the rage in the 1950's and 60's, tend to be white because the birds that produce the most eggs the fastest (hence the cheapest) lay white eggs. In recent decades, people have come to associate factory eggs with all things big, bad, and industrial, hence the movement to brown eggs, which many people assume are somehow intrinsically better than white eggs.

I'll say it again that shell color has no bearing on the egg inside. Eggshell coloration is hereditary and comes from pigments deposited (or in the case of white eggshells, not deposited) onto the outer layers of the white shell.

Brown eggs are significantly more expensive than white eggs in US markets for two reasons. Chickens that lay brown eggs tend to be from larger breeds that require more feed and they tend to lay fewer, larger eggs. So it generally costs more to produce brown eggs than white. Coupling this real production expense with the misunderstanding that brown eggs are somehow better than white eggs lets producers command higher prices for brown eggs.

So again, buy your eggs based on freshness and not on shell color.

For a glimpse into the wide variety of eggshell coloration, from snow white to chocolate, with blue and pink thrown in for grins, see the following charts:

Henderson's Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart

Egg Shell Colour Chart by Breed of Hen

Monday, January 11, 2010

Birdies in the Dining Room

I got a chuckle at lunch last week. An older woman came into the restaurant bitching volubly about the parking job of another customer. The old woman whose parking job was the brunt of the whine very discretely flipped the other woman a bird! Right in the dining room, yet discretely! You go girl!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Vodka Sauce

This winter, I put a pasta with vodka sauce on the lunch menu and because the sauce is so good, we've started cooking our mussels in it as an alternative to the usual à la marinière preparation.

I have always wondered if adding an essentially flavorless alcohol to tomato sauce was just a gimmick. [Vodka pedants, we all know good vodka has flavor, just like good bottled water has flavor, but when compared to tomatoes, it might as well be flavorless, so don't go there!] Qualitatively, I do know that my vodka sauce is really, really tasty. But, what role if any does the vodka play?

I always macerate my crushed red pepper flakes in the vodka before adding it to the sauce to make a spicy red pepper extract, much in the same way that I make vanilla extract by putting vanilla beans in a bottle of inexpensive vodka. Clearly the capsaicins (the alkaloids responsible for the burn) are freely alcohol soluble; the vodka becomes very spicy. If the vodka does nothing else in my sauce, it does promote an even spicing of the sauce. Capsaicins are notably insoluble in water, hence drinking a glass of water does nothing to ameliorate the burn in your mouth.

But does the vodka do anything for the tomatoes?

The popular food literature is replete with sayings such as "the alcohol in the vodka enhances the flavor of the tomatoes." But I can't really find any specific reference in the scientific literature to confirm this. What I do see is that there are several patents for processing tomatoes that begin by macerating the tomatoes in food-grade alcohol (e.g., US Patent 5436022), so I surmise that some of the key flavoring agents in tomatoes must be more alcohol soluble than water soluble.

Sorry for getting so technical. I just want to know why my vodka sauce tastes so damned good! Anybody out there have any ideas what role alcohol plays in tomato sauce?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"I want my money back!"

Cooking an order of mussels at lunch reminded me of a grumpy old man at dinner several years ago.

He came in solo for dinner and ordered an appetizer of mussels for his dinner. Maybe he wasn't hungry; I'm thinking he was looking for an inexpensive (read "free") meal because a minute or two into his mussels, he summoned the server to the table to complain that several of the shells contained no mussels at all and that he didn't want to pay for them, oblivious (more than likely intentionally so) that said mussels had fallen out of the shells to the bottom of the bowl.

I ended up comping him for the mussels (and the three loaves of bread) that he ate knowing that he'd never come back and that he'd go pester some other restaurant. And sure enough, we've never seen him since. I still chuckle about the old guy from time to time when I remember him. He's the kind of customer that makes for a good story at our Christmas party.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

I was freezing my rear end off at the farmers market yesterday—it was the 15-knot winds, not the actual temperature—while piling my purchases on the table. Somebody said, "That looks like a picture!" So courtesy of my trusty iPhone, here's part of my haul.

Who said there's nothing to buy at the winter market? From the red cabbage in the upper left moving clockwise, there's curly kale, blushing golden and york apples, butternut squash, savoy cabbage, leeks, and several celery roots, which are mostly obscuring some very pretty turnips.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Caribou Impressions

Caribou, also known as Reindeer when domesticated, is a very large arctic and subarctic deer. Very little of it comes to market because hunting is strictly controlled and most of the caribou in North America are taken by the Inuit for subsistence. I was able to get a very few pounds of caribou tenderloin during the fall hunting season and have been slowly eeking it out for Chef's Tastings ever since. As you might imagine with strictly limited supply and some serious transportation costs, carbiou is very expensive, easily the most expensive meat that we have ever served here at the restaurant.

I had never had caribou before this fall so I approached it as I would any other lean game meat; I have a vast amount of experience with White Tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Red Deer, Fallow Deer, and Elk, all of which I love. The first thing I did, the first thing I do with just about any new meat, is grill a small piece of it to rare. While this is a great way to eat elk and other deer, it wasn't doing it for me for caribou. The texture was very soft and it had no flavor. At the same time, I noticed that the more well done outer bits had both better texture and flavor.

The next experiment was to sear a piece of caribou tenderloin and finish it in the oven to medium. The result was good texture; I'm now convinced that caribou (the tenderloin at least) wants to be cooked more than the average deer. But the flavor was just not there. Flavorwise, it was a not very interesting piece of lean red meat. Flavor to value ratio just not there. For the astronomical sums I paid for the meat, I expected it to both sing and dance on my palate. Bummer.

Henceforth, we have been trying to impart flavor to the meat with marinades and dry rubs. Our most successful essay to date has been to marinate a piece of tenderloin overnight in gin, then rub it in a spice mix strong on juniper berries, and then sear the hell out of it in a hot pan with a final couple of minutes in the oven.

So, I have checked caribou off my list and I enjoyed it, but seriously, a good heritage pork tenderloin for $5 per pound has got it whipped any day. Live and learn.

Photo courtesy of Dean Biggins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Customer Art

Beth Berry took this photo on New Year's Eve and sent it to me today. I love the dribble of wine on the label of the bottle and the reflection of the olive oil cruet in the glass.

And by the way, for all of you who have wanted to purchase our logo wine glasses, we have a new shipment in, ready and waiting for you.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Roulade of Gravlax

Let's start off the new year with one of the dishes that we served as an appetizer on our New Year's Eve menu, a roulade of gravlax. I cured a side of salmon for many days in salt, sugar, and a lot of white pepper and then dried the salmon for several more days in the refrigerator to yield what I call prosciutto of salmon, for its ham-like consistency. You could substitute any kind of thinly sliced fish or even ham in this appetizer. This post is about the technique; I leave the flavorings up to you. The tiny leaves you see are micro-lemongrass, which echo the lemon zest in the cream cheese filling.

Start by laying out plastic film on your counter top. If you're using narrow film, you may want to overlap two pieces as I did. Lay out your fish in a large rectangle as you see here. In practice, it doesn't really matter how the pieces overlap each other. Patch any large holes with small bits of fish.

Make certain your filling is very soft, otherwise, you'll not be able to spread it on the fish without destroying your layout. This filling is softened cream cheese flavored with fresh dill, lemon zest, minced capers, and white pepper. I didn't add any salt because the ham-like salmon is really salty and the capers add enough salt to the filling. I've also used all manner of seafood mousses as fillings. Experiment and have fun.

Working very carefully, spread the filling over the fish. Take your time. I will be rolling this from the right edge to the left edge. Notice that I start the filling close to the right edge, but leave a large margin on the left side so that I have an extra flap of fish to help seal the roulade. Also leave a bit of margin on the two ends so that you don't push the filling out onto the counter as you roll the roulade.

Obligatory food porn shot number 1. Doesn't this look good? Notice how faded the salmon looks? That's because I salted it for so long; the longer the cure, the paler the fish in my experience. This fish was a fairly typical salmon red to begin with. The fish was in the cure about a total of 7-8 days, which is a long time for salmon. The longer the cure, the drier and saltier the fish, as well. If you cure your own fish, you'll have to experiment to see what you like.

Using the plastic film, turn over the first little bit of the edge of the roll on itself. Once you have turned over the first little bit, use your fingers to tighten up the roll, keeping the film between your fingers and the fish. Use the film to keep pulling the fish over itself, forming a tight cylinder as you go. The film is absent in the subsequent photos to keep the glare down; this is merely for photographic convenience.

Here is the roulade, rolled about half way. Notice how I have tightened the roll up as much as possible. There is a fine line between tight enough and so tight that you start forcing the filling out of the seams. Be gentle; using the film to form the roll helps you keep the pressure gentle. If you do touch the roll with your hands, use the flats of your palms and roll gently. It's not hard to do, but go slowly until you get the hang of it.

Obligatory food porn shot number two in which the photographer feels compelled to give tight, close up shots of highly edible foodstuffs. The ends of the roulade will be naturally a bit ragged as you see here and that's OK. However, it is a terrible shame that you will have to trim and eat these little snack bits rather than serving them to your guests. Poor you!

Here you see the completed (but unwrapped) roll just before I put it in the refrigerator to chill. Notice about a third of the way down that there is a slight void between a couple of pieces of gravlax (where you see the white filling peeking out). This is nothing to worry about or even try to fix: small voids here and there will not compromise the integrity of the roll once it firms up in the refrigerator. The solid filling will bind everything.

Roll the roulade in the film. I discarded one of the two pieces on the counter and rolled the fish in the other. Gently roll it back and forth on the counter to make the cylinder as uniform as possible. Place on a tray and refrigerate for at least four hours and preferably overnight. You want the filling to firm up as much as possible. If you are in a mad rush, use the freezer.

Here's what you are aiming for, a tight roulade with few internal voids. My hints for slicing the roulade: make sure the roulade is very cold, use a very thin knife with cullens such as a gravlax knife or ham slicer, slice directly through the plastic film, and wash the blade in warm water between slices.